A Midsummer Night’s Dream

March 7, 2022 | By More

★★★★☆   Starry night

Festival Theatre: Tue 1 – Sat 5 March 2022
Review by Thom Dibdin

There is nothing rushed about Dominic Hill’s compelling new production of Benjamin Britten’s opera of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Scottish Opera at the Festival Theatre until Saturday.

As a director, Hill excels when called upon to bring out to the darkness of a script. For Shakespeare’s most popular comedy his approach is a bit more subtle. He brings a somnambulism to the opening two acts – while proving that he can also do comedy very well indeed for the flourishes of the gloriously hilarious final act.

Catriona Hewitson (Tytania) and the junior chorus of fairies. Pic: James Glossop

Britten’s opera remains pretty faithful to the original Shakespeare text – although Britten cuts all the royal court pre-amble and goes straight to the bit which interests him: the Athenian woods on that Midsummer night.

Here, Tytania and Oberon, the Queen and King of the fairies, are fighting over a changeling boy; a quartet of youngsters flee Athens (lovers Lysander and Hermia, with Hellena following Demetrius who loves Hermia); and a sextet of labourers who are intent on preparing an entertainment for the nuptials of King Theseus with Hippolyta.

Hill gives a glimpse of the original’s opening scenes in his opening tableux, the detritus of a party in Theseus’s palace where all the lovers are gathered. But from then on, it is a crepuscular outing all the way under Lizzie Powell’s lighting design, with designer Tom Piper creating a forest canopy of beds, which fly up above like lowering clouds.

naughty, playful spirit

On the ground, Michael Guest tumbles and laughs in the non-singing role of Puck. It’s a performance to equal the naughty, playful spirit of the character; not always succeeding in doing Theseus’s bidding as asked, but taking clear delight in the mayhem his mistakes cause.

Michael Guest as Puck with the fairy band . Pic:
James Glossop.

Lawrence Zazzo’s Oberon and Catriona Hewitson’s Tytania might rule over all they survey in the night time but, when it comes to love, they are the epitome of a long married couple: holding a grudge well passed its sell-by date.

Britten’s closely worked score echo’s the couple’s needling and niggling, with Zazzo and Hewitson doing it full justice as they draw out the nuances. They are supported by a wonderfully vigorous children’s chorus of young voices for the fairy band and the various named fairies.

It is their argument over the changeling child – a toddler-sized puppet worked by Puck and Caleb Hughs – which causes the merriment of the early scenes, as Puck transforms the labourer’s leading man, the bumptious Bottom the Weaver (David Shipley) into a donkey and causes Tytania to fall in love with him.

The lovers, with Oberon and Puck looking on. Pic: James Glossop

The four lovers fare rather less well in Britten’s music which doesn’t let the libretto shine as it feels it wants to, particularly when Puck’s love potion does its work.

Elgan Llyr Thomas as Lysander, Jonathan Jonathan McGovern as Demetrius, Lea Shaw as Hermia and Charlie Drummond as Helena are all recognisable as their Shakespearian selves, but it takes knowledge of the original to fill in the gaps. It looks good and sounds great, but there is an edge missing.

There is not one single caveat to the success of the performances, production, direction of music for Act 3, however, when the labourers perform their “tedious but brief” take on Pyramus and Thisbe.

To be honest, it is hard to think of a better interpretation. The music now serves the action, in both its tenor and its meter. Hill allows little asides to pepper the play and gets its rhythm exactly right.

Arthur Bruce, Dingle Yandell, Glen Cunningham, John Molloy and Jamie MacDougall in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Credit James Glossop.

For all the collision between fantasy and reality, the heady mix of nightmare, beauty sleep and trippy transgression in the production, the labourers are its greatest achievement. Not just Shipley’s Bottom, but John Molloy’s Peter Quince, Glen Cunningham’s Flute, Dingle Yandell’s Snug, Jamie MacDougall’s Snout and Arthur Bruce’s Starveling.

Hill ensures that his singers are actors too, adding depth to the characters every time they step onto the stage. And like much great comedy, it gets to its dizzying heights by treating its materially with absolute sincerity.

And if Hill takes his time getting to those heights, the getting there is a path worth wandering along, with rather more delights than you might expect.

Running time: Three hours and 25 minutes (including two intervals)
Festival Theatre, 13/29 Nicolson Street EH8 9FT. Phone booking: 0131 529 6000.
The 1 – Sat 5 Mar 2022
Tue, Thurs, Sat: 7.15pm.
Tickets and details:  Book here.

Tytania and Bottom. Pic: James Glossop

ENDS

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