Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Garsington Opera and RSC)

Written by: Tim Arnold

An unusual alliance between the Garsington Opera and the Royal Shakespeare Company resulted in the rare treat of the Bard’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream being performed with all of Felix Mendelssohn’s incidental music.

It was difficult leaving the innovative performance not to feel a twinge of regret that the German composer had not expanded his work into a fully-fledged opera.

Forbes Masson as Bottom and Chris Lew Kum Hoi as Flute in A Midsummer Night's Dream at Garsington Opera

Forbes Masson as Bottom and Chris Lew Kum Hoi as Flute in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Picture: Mark Douet

Not least because the Garsington Chorus dominated the production with a world-class performance that was the most melodic and tuneful experience that I have ever heard at the venue, at Wormsley. The result was utterly sublime.

Douglas Boyd’s orchestra was promoted from their usual below-the-salt position in the pit to the back half of the stage.

The cast performed in front of the musicians, with virtually no scenery, and this treatment had a number of benefits.

Firstly, director Owen Horsley was taking us back to the play’s roots, since Elizabethan plays were traditionally acted without scenery or dedicated costume.

Secondly, the facial reactions of the orchestra to the action in front of them acted as a kind of mirror for the audience’s emotions.

Other slick directorial touches included getting the play’s master of ceremonies, Puck, performed with gusto by Oliver Johnstone, to pretend he was conducting the orchestra. Was Puck really the spirit of Mendelssohn?

Forbes Masson shone as Bottom, resplendent with a broad Glaswegian accent. He engaged in excellent slapstick with Chris Lew Kum Hoi as Flute – again reprising the Elizabethan tradition of a young man playing a female.

The rest of the cast gave workmanlike performances, with the exception of Joan Iyiola as Hermia. Her rasping voice, with sibilant diction, was an annoying distraction.

Sadly, the bard’s words were savagely redacted in order to allow the audience to enjoy the customary picnic in the grounds of the Garsington Estate in a long interval.

I came back fortified from my pork pie and bubbly, ready for a two hour slog of Elizabethan English. All I got was a 40 minute epilogue. I felt cheated.

However, that problem should not occur in the forthcoming performances at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London (July 22-24) and Stratford Upon Avon (July 26) when the two halves will probably not seem so disjointed.

Beg, borrow, or get a ticket to this superb production. Otherwise, you’ll be away with the fairies. Or perhaps not.

Author: Tim Arnold

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