Viruses, it seems, make no distinction between mortals and spirits. Even Fairy Kings can succumb. And so it was that Iestyn Davies, a much-anticipated Oberon, acted the role on stage while William Towers provided his singing voice from an adjacent box. This was not the only ailment to afflict the opening night of English National Opera’s new production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream but it lent a further dimension of strangeness to Christopher Alden’s provocative staging. We were far, faraway here from Shakespeare’s forest of enchantment and should we really be such stuff as dreams are made of then this composer’s dream was destined to take us to a very dark place indeed.
On the eve of his wedding (now there’s wishful thinking) a man returns to his old school and in the forecourt of its lowering Victorian grey-brick façade (brilliant Charles Edwards set) he revisits the confusions and torments of his younger self unlocking painful memories and identifying the source of deep psychological scars. He is, of course, Britten, later Theseus (Paul Whelan), and in a stroke of genius on Alden’s part the boy whose lost innocence he carries with him through life – his younger self – is none other than the much-abused and put-upon Puck (Jamie Manton), plaything and fag of the manipulative Oberon whose affections are now diverted to a still younger and fresher “changeling boy”.
“Out of this wood do not desire to go”, writes one young boy on the school blackboard, and with this one line Alden reminds us that Shakespeare’s metaphor for the chaos and confusions of darkest night can have a more sinister, a more personal, application. The boring booers in the audience would, of course, have us bring back Peter Hall and banish all contemporary ambiguity from the word “fairy” but how disturbingly this enclosed world of adolescent boys and their growing pains sat amidst the queasy glissandi and eerie celeste-glinting chills of Britten’s fantastical score vividly laid bare by conductor Leo Hussain.
Intimations of Britten’s rebellion exploded with Tytania’s wooing of the beastly Bottom (a marvellously robust Willard White), a pagan rite with exercise books showering down from upper windows against the percussive hammering of boys’ fists. The rude mechanicals would eventually provide light and laughter (and rudeness) but this “dream” – theatrically arresting and a fine example of ENO’s ensemble work – was always going to have a sting in its tail.