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· Benjamin Britten’s Midsummer Camp.

A Fortnightly Review of

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
by Benjamin Britten
English National Opera, Coliseum.
Through 25 June 2011.

By Michelene Wandor.

I BEGIN WITH TWO confessions. I am not a Britten enthusiast, and neither am I able, with equanimity, to listen to the singing of Peter Pears. The libretto to this opera was cobbled (and I used the word advisedly, rather than Rude Meckanically) together by Britten and Pears from the Shakespeare play of the same name. Judging from what I could grasp from the very-sur titles, way up above the Coliseum stage, they did a pretty random hatchet job, playing with bits of the story line, moving words and phrases around, and inventing language. Nevertheless, the complex crossed-lovers basic story line seemed to be fairly intact. Two pairs of lovers are alternately helped and hindered by magic potions; a group of workers (the afore-referenced Rude Meckanicals) provide light relief.

The framework for Shakespeare’s dramatic conceit is that Theseus, Duke of Athens, is looking for an entertainment for his own wedding. So magic, fairies, elves and humans, all combine in a world of fantasy, with potential for commentary on human relationships.

I have a third confession: I didn’t pay for my ticket. One of the harpists in the orchestra is a friend, and on the eve of the bank holiday weekend, bookings were sparse. My free ticket gave me a welcome seat, only a few rows back in the stalls. Apart from the pleasure of such proximity to the stage, the other welcome surprise was the music. A wonderful score, with string glissandi dovetailing with harps, brass, bassoons and keyboards. Leo Hussain’s conducting was strong and precise. Equally, much of the singing was impressive. The chorus of fairies – boys from a Croydon school – were impeccable. Willard White, as Bottom, was in fine subterranean voice. I didn’t buy a programme (it cost £5, far too expensive), so I hazard a guess that Iestyn Davies was the counter-tenor Oberon I heard, and very impressive he was too.

THE PRODUCTION, HOWEVER. A travesty of over-programmatic interpretation. A misogynistic gloss, which aimed, it seemed, to reclaim the original erotic, heterosexual fantasy for suppressed gay desire. Mistake me not: I love camp, for very many reasons, not least of which is that, whatever its bias may be, it affords multiple tropes and devices to play with cultural sexual manifestations: clothes, facial and body appearance and body language. Camp can reach all those places where traditional sexual representations cannot.

The set is a massive, factory-like school façade, with an entrance (!) marked ‘Boys’ at its apex. Ostensibly, then, we are in a uniformed boys’ school. But lo! Not only are there a couple of women teachers, but there are also some girls, in identical grey uniforms. No sign, though, that there is an entrance (!) for the girls, or that they might be from a twinned establishment. Okay. But if Christopher Alden’s directorial intent is to reclaim the story as a vehicle for gay male relationships, why not have an all-male cast? Obviously, vocal range is an issue – but we have no shortage of wonderful countertenors.

Apart from the set’s constant reminder that we are in the Boys’ world, the production’s framing device affords a hostile gloss on the heterosexual fervours of the story. Before a note is played or sung, a gangly man in a nondescript suit wanders onto the stage. He is joined by a younger, shorter man. Gangly looks round a lot as if he’s bored and in the wrong place. Hands in pockets, he remains on stage throughout the first half, sometimes leaning against the walls, following the action, sometimes hanging his head, sometimes shaking his head, sometimes sliding down a wall to sit, exhausted on the floor. Shorty, meanwhile, turns out to be reluctantly constrained to pour magic potions into appropriate ears, and seems to want nothing more than to get to Gangly. The end of the first half culminates in Shorty pulling himself on his stomach, across the front of the stage, to end with his head in Gangly’s lap. Perhaps this is true happiness. Perhaps not.

MY INTERPRETATION DEMONSTRATES, I think, how powerful silence and suggestive framing can serve to undermine the imperatives of a story line. Semiological analysis of the way meanings are created in the theatre has shown the power of certain kinds of symbolism, and the silent presence of characters on a stage can – as, indeed, it does in this instance – ‘speak’ louder than actual words. Shorty does have some words – chiefly consisting of a resistance to furthering the fortunes of the heterosexual lovers, and this links him with Gangly, and male bonding. Taken together, this serves to highlight the way gay relationships are suppressed, and muddied by the presence of women. The trump card of the production, then, is misogyny.

Whether or not this was in the minds of the first-night audience, I don’t know. They may simply have responded to what seemed like muddled thinking behind the production – my harpist friend told me there were some resonant boos from the auditorium. I am not suggesting that Alden was necessarily aware of the import of his framing device. Perhaps he thought that the weight of essays in the programme would provide clarity. Was he trying to recreate Britten’s childhood memories? Why have an essay about paedophilia?

Well, answers to those questions are irrelevant. It’s the staging and production which speak: unpleasant misogyny and some prurient interpretations of gay experience. High-blown camp could have taken the whole enterprise much further and much less offensively.

Michelene Wandor’s two most recent poetry books are published by Arc Publications: Musica Transalpina (a Poetry Book Society Recommendation), and The Music of the Prophets. She performs with the Siena Ensemble and reports regularly for The Fortnightly Review.

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