Guildhall School at Barbican Theatre – Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Opera in three acts to a libretto adapted from Shakespeare by the composer & Peter Pears

Oberon – Tom Verney
Tytania – Eleanor Laugharne
Puck – Alexander Knox
Lysander – Stuart Laing
Hermia – Kathryn McAdam
Demetrius – Ashley Riches
Helena – Sky Ingram
Quine – James Platt
Snug – Joseph Padfield
Starveling – Hadleigh Adams
Flute – Jorge Navarro-Colorado
Snout – Luis Gomes
Bottom – Barnaby Rea
Theseus – Ciprian Droma
Hippolyta – Catherine Backhouse
Peaseblossom – Alba Bosch TeixidorCobweb – Faustine de Monès
Moth – Iria Perestrelo
Mustardseed – Laura Ruhí Vidal

Fairies – Pupils from Haberdashers’ Aske’s Hatcham College

Guildhall School Opera
Stephen Barlow

Martin Lloyd-Evans – Director
Dick Bird – Designer
Simon Corder – Lighting
Victoria Newlyn – Choreography

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 28 February, 2012
Venue: Barbican Theatre, London

The Guildhall School Opera Course sticks with Shakespearean comedy after Harry Fehr’s witty and innovative Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor last November. The difference here, in Martin Lloyd-Evans’s new production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is the change in venue. With Cheek by Jowl (how appropriate, as Declan Donnellan’s company takes its name from A Midsummer Night’s Dream) in the Silk Street Theatre, the Guildhall School of Music makes its debut in the Barbican Theatre, and do it with remarkable aplomb.

Unlike for Opera North’s recent boxed-in sets (Queen of Spades and Ruddigore), the Barbican’s glittering safety curtain is closed as you go in, and opens with a widening aperture for each act. Unfortunately it needs some WD40 as, just as it completes its opening, there is a niggling jangle of squeaks. Given the three acts of the work, it’s perhaps not surprising that the recurrent and by-now predictable squeaks garnered laughter after the second interval. Such a shame as here it would have been wonderful to open the safety curtain during the act’s opening music…

That aside, technically all worked well. At first I thought designer Dick Bird had opted to stick within the general confines of the Silk Street Theatre stage, as a shallow oblong the width of the stage is revealed, with dilapidated back-wall and narrow windows, below which are a number of metal bedsteads. Are we in a school, like David Alden’s recent ENO production? The wheelchair man in pyjamas points to the growing sense that we are in a hospital ward. It’s Puck (Alexander Knox – on the singers’ course, but here – of course – in a non-singing role) and he unearths the fairies (dressed like the children in Peter Pan). Oberon and Tytania appear at two of the tall windows and their otherworldliness is conveyed (perhaps bafflingly) in their quasi-medical dress: Oberon, with surgical head-dress with reflector, and white mouth-mask painted on, but with rather darker black apron, and what looked like rubber leggings; Tytania with nurse’s hat, but what looked like flowing medieval garb. Oberon always dispensed his magic by the portentous donning of a black-rubber glove.

Thankfully the mortals place the action more specifically in the Second World War – mechanicals with air-raid tin-hats and home-guard arm-bands and the young lovers in the forces (Lysander in Air Force blue, Hermia in the WRAF, Demetrius in the Navy and Helena in the Women’s Royal Army Corps). By this time the central back wall of the ward had flown up to reveal twenty-seven silver-birch trunks and the forest that was missing from the ENO production.

Martin Lloyd-Evans marshals some good visual ideas: especially using glasses on those lovers (Tytania included) on whom Oberon’s flower-drug is used. Demetrius kept his on to the end (without a passing reference from Helena), but it is the mechanicals that score best. Whilst Bottom’s ass’s head, fashioned out of an outsize gas mask, looked more rodent-like than equine to me, it was his and Tytania’s flying love-bed (unveiled as the safety curtain opened at the beginning of Act Three – quite literally centre-stage, not only laterally but vertically too) and the surprise use of a milk-float, driven on as the stage for Pyramus and Thisbe that made the biggest impression.

Unfortunately it was the musical side that slightly let the side down. Much of it didn’t sound particularly like Britten and Stephen Barlow’s conducting was slow. The orchestra settled and much of it was played well but not really idiomatically, and that had an effect on the singing. It needed more pace, but perhaps that will come with the further three performances.

Many of the singers were common to Die Lustigen Weiber, Barnaby Rea moving effortlessly from ebullient Falstaff to bully Bottom. He alternates as Theseus (with Ciprian Droma as Bottom) in the second and last performances, when the quartet of lovers are played by Sioned Gwen Davies, Emily Blanch, Alexandros Tsilogiannis and Victor Sicard (as Hermia, Helena, Lysander and Demetrius respectively). Haberdashers’ Aske’s Hatcham College provide a second set of fairies for these two performances. Common to the cast are countertenor Tom Verney and Eleanor Laugharne as the fairy king and queen, and the rest of the mechanicals.

But as a staging this was an impressive use of the stage – perhaps the best opera I’ve seen at the Barbican Theatre, and I hope that it will not be the last that the combined efforts of backstage crew, stage management, singers and instrumentalists from the Guildhall School get to grips with the space. In advance of that, returning to the Silk Street Theatre, is the European première of Ned Rorem’s Thurber adaptation Our Town (end of May/early June).

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