A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Shakespeare/Mendelssohn

A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Incidental Music [performed as part of Shakespeare’s Comedy]

Choir of the Enlightenment (ladies)
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Iván Fischer

Martin Turner – Theseus / Oberon
Melanie Jessop – Titania / Hippolyta
James Garnon – Puck / Snout
Amy Brown – Hermia / Peter Quince
Alex Hassell – Lysander / Flute
Antonia Lewis – Helena / Snug
Daniel Rigby – Demetrius / Starveling
John Paul Connolly – Bottom / Egeus

Tim Carroll – Director
Jenny Tiramani – Designer
Holly Pearce – Stage Manager

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 28 February, 2005
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

As part of the South Bank’s Mendelssohn festival the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and actors from the Globe Theatre presented a semi-staged version of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” – with every note of Mendelssohn’s incidental music intertwined. The same production had recently been mounted in America, with performances at Avery Fisher Hall in New York and Ann Arbor.

With a skilful filleting of the play, director Tim Carroll was able to use just eight actors, each doubling up, while miraculously leaving much of the text intact. The staging showed similar economy, with the orchestral players and chorus members posing in their sedentary positions as the Athenian forest where most of the action is set and with ‘fairy’ lights on the actors’ costumes. For once the mottled lighting effect on the back of the Royal Festival Hall was entirely apposite, the whole creating a truly magical feel. Even conductor Iván Fischer got into the act, usually as a handy resting post for actors to lean on, but eventually given a speaking role (drolly warning Theseus not to watch the mechanicals).

The timbres of the authentic instruments made their mark at every point; this was not a streamlined modern-sounding performance but a living, warts-and-all affair. And although there are plenty of ‘complete’ recordings of this music in the catalogue, what one never hears are the tiny details – sometimes just bars or single chords – that fine-point the action throughout the play. Fischer included them all, subtly matching the music to the comedy.

Bottom’s transformation into an ass was effected by John Paul Connolly’s donning a pair of ears fashioned from two horn bells, while the saxophone (non-played) and clarinet represented Oberon’s different love potions. Titania and Bottom’s love-bower was a double bass case, and Lysander and Demetrius fought with trombones. During the mechanicals’ play (“Pyramus and Thisbe”), Bottom killed himself with a cymbal-cut to the neck and a valve-less trumpet was used like a blunderbuss; meanwhile Thisbe swiped the leader of the second violins’ instrument, using the bow to inflict the fatal blow. In the ensuing burlesque, she danced wildly around it with Pyramus. We all knew what was going to happen next, but the destruction of the violin was delayed in a stroke of comic timing, until after the dance, when Thisbe, dropped from Pyramus’s arms, crushed the hapless instrument. Brilliant!

The cast – particularly James Garnon – was superb, with the non-amplified voices carrying well. And the use of the auditorium was extensive – Lysander and Demetrius chasing each other around the stalls, Theseus and Hippolyta moving into the Annexes to watch the mechanicals, and the fairies spreading rings of light over the Stalls, there was no option other than to surrender to the production. The only disappointment was that Bottom’s transformation was greeted by such audience mirth that the ophicleide, at that moment in its starring role, was all but lost.

In short, a magical triumph.

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