Longborough Festival 2023 – Purcell’s The Fairy Queen – Lars Fischer, Rachel Speirs, Luke Horner & Peter Edge; directed by Polly Graham; conducted by Harry Sever & Naomi Burrell

The Fairy Queen – Semi-opera in five Acts to an anonymous libretto adapted from William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream [sung in English with new arrangements by Naomi Burrell and Harry Sever, with English surtitles]

Hermia – Eleanor Broomfield
Titania / Hippolyta – Rachel Speirs
Helena – Annie Reilly
Oberon / Theseus – Lars Fischer
Demetrius – Luke Horner
Egeus / Puck / Snug – Suzi Perkis
Lysander – Peter Edge
Flute / Fairy 1 – Alys Mererid Roberts
Quince / Fairy 2 – Angharad Rowlands
Snout / Fairy 3 – Rhydian Jenkins
Starveling / Fairy 4 – Edward Jowle
Bottom – George Robarts

The Longborough Youth Chorus

The Band
Harry Sever & Naomi Burrell

Polly Graham – Director
Nate Gibson – Designer
Tim Mitchell – Lighting
Carmine de Amicis – Movement Director

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 30 July, 2023
Venue: Longborough, Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire, England

We have become accustomed over the summer (and even before that) to social events being disrupted by Just Stop Oil demonstrations. Polly Graham’s production of The Fairy Queen for Longborough amusingly forestalls such an interruption by staging its own environmental protest. The actor who plays the Drunken Poet in Act One’s masque opens proceedings as a politician or demagogue, setting out his sceptical manifesto about climate change, before he is pursued by a group of young protesters with placards, who here become the cause of his torments in ‘Trip it, trip it in a ring, around this mortal dance and sing’. The concept initially seems rather forced upon the work (coming after an unrelated rendition of John Dowland’s ‘Come again sweet love’ whilst the audience settles, given for no apparent reason) especially as this first scene and its immediate successors are squeezed in at the front of the stage, before the tasselled curtains which close off the set behind.

That idea comes to make more sense, however, when the protesters and placards return at various points, putting into a contemporary context the famous lyrical descriptions and eulogising of nature within A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the play around which Purcell’s semi-opera is constructed. It makes for a somewhat static opening, but once the tassels are removed, things take off, as this colourfully, energetically choregraphed production plays out over a set that is inspired by modern street art and what looks like a dilapidated children’s playground – a picture in the programme suggests that the swan which dominates is a motif borrowed from the abandoned Spreepark in Berlin. Shakespeare’s play is given in a greatly reduced form, leaving Purcell’s score to take centre stage. In a roundabout way, then, the production conjures in a modern form both the dream-like visions (which the characters in Shakespeare’s text explicitly state is their intention) and Baroque theatrical spectacle which Purcell and his collaborators would have imagined in their time. Those aesthetics also come to the fore in the dance routines which are devised for some numbers (if not corresponding to any formal, classical dance forms) and in the folk music interpolations for others (one of which is in Welsh) which evoke the earthy, demotic aura of the Rude Mechanicals’ world in particular.

The young cast of singers give exacting accounts of Purcell’s music, in full control of his ebullient vocal writing, but imbuing it with personality too. It’s curious that Lars Fischer’s Oberon sounds half-spoken, but that at least distinguishes his characterisation from his enacting the part of Theseus too. Rachel Speirs is a cheerily whimsical Titania, while Peter Edge and Luke Horner as the human Lysander and Demetrius are vehement contestants for Hermia. The four Fairies make distinguished contributions, but also blend well in ensemble.

The group of instrumentalists who come together here as ‘The Band’ function just as much a part of the action as the actors and singers, since they frequently appear on stage and interact with them. That gives the music a looseness and flexibility, especially in the folk numbers and those passages of Purcell’s score which are riffed upon, enabling the spoken drama and the musical masques to become more intertwined. The semi-opera format of The Fairy Queen, with its discrete musical sequences or masques that are not always entirely related to Shakespeare’s text, is hard to bring off well if that play is not performed in its entirety (as it isn’t here). But the vivacious scenarios for Purcell’s masques are imaginatively intercalated with the play’s extracts, as irrepressibly realised by the performers here, so that the whole production comes off as one effervescent fantasy.

Further performances to August 3

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