A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Royal College of Music

In his new production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for
the Royal College of Music, director Liam Steel seems to want to seek out
the play’s, and the opera’s, darker purposes – to ‘re-instate the seminal
strand of sexuality and abandonment at the heart of Shakespeare’s original
creation’. So far, so good. But, when Steel decides that Shakespeare’s
depiction of Midsummer Eve licentiousness was ‘a reaction to a
fundamentalist society in the grip of Puritanism’ (when the play was
written in 1595/96?) and that therefore it would be a good idea to set his
production in the Weimar Republic – which, he argues, ‘essentially became
the “Midsummer Woods” of Elizabethan England’, and which, lacking
censorship and promoting sensuality, is ‘the world into which our lovers
and Bottom fall’ – he steps, like Shakespeare’s mortals, from the path of

Admittedly, the 1920s underground cabaret scene, in which sex and politics
were served up as sensuous satire, might serve as a parallel for the
liberation which Shakespeare’s mortals, fleeing from courtly and social
mores, momentarily find in the forest. Indeed, Stefan Zweig’s condemnation
of Berlin’s cabaret scene, ‘Amid the general collapse of values, a kind of
insanity took hold of precisely those middle-class circles which had
hitherto been unshakeable in their order’, isn’t so far from the experience
of Shakespeare’s lovers.

And, there’s plentiful bawdiness in Shakespeare’s text, even in the opening
court scene (omitted in Britten’s opera): from Theseus’s initial lament of
impatience that the ‘old moon … lingers my desires/Like to a step-dame, or
a dowager,/Long withering out a young man’s revenue’, with its plentiful
double entendres, to his declaration to Hippolyta, ‘I wooed thee with my
sword/ And won thy love, doing thee injuries’, which may celebrate a double
conquest, on the battlefield and in bed.

Moreover, the play abounds with meta-theatrical references and devices, and
so when George Longworth’s Puck rattled the cabaret club shutters to usher
us into the party, the invitation didn’t seem out of place. Were we to
enter a Berlin Baccanalia where lovers swapped partners in a psychedelic

No, is the short answer. Although, Shakespeare’s wood – as Britten’s score
confirms – is a world ruled by a magic which conjures desire, delirium and
danger in equal measure, Steel’s concept never comes close to matching this
power of enchantment. Lights pulse in the darkness of Michael Pavelka’s
mirror-strewn set, illuminated by Andy Purves’ streaks of colour and gleam.
An iron-framed four-poster bed is wheeled back and forth, and the mortals’
‘Shadows’ slink through the eponymous gloom, clad in black leather and
lace. But, there’s little that is risquÈ, reckless or red-blooded.

Timothy Morgan’s Oberon is neither a monstrous tormentor nor mischievous
mocker, though he looked strikingly seedy! While ‘I know a bank’ gleamed
purely, Morgan struggled with the shift to the chest voice needed to
project Britten’s low-lying lines with sufficient expressive warmth to
assert the Fairy King’s authority – though, guided by conductor Michael
Rosewell, the cellos and basses provided sensitive support. Similarly,
Longworth’s Puck was more merry sprite than devil’s spirit and displayed
little delight in torturing the mortals, concerned more with winning his
master’s affectionate attentions.

Harriet Eyley – whom I admired very much as the Vixen in RCM’s production
of Jan·?ek’s own forest foray last autumn, and in Poulenc’s

Les mamelles de TirÈsias

at the College earlier that year – was, as Tytania, once again tremendously
glossy of voice, adding some much needed glamour. She was ‘protected’ by a
fairy chorus comprising dulcet-voiced members of Trinity Boys Choir who,
attired in evening dress and round, tinted specs, seemed to be ‘black’
versions of the school-boy sprites seen in Netia Jones’

Snape Maltings

production last year. Not only were they ineffectual sentries – simply
hoisted and carried off by the mortals’ Shadows – as apparently aged
spectators at the show, they looked thoroughly bored. If they’d paid for
the ‘cabaret’, they might well have demanded their money back.

Shakespeare and Britten juxtapose the reason of daytime, as advocated by
Theseus, with the irrationality of the night, as ruled by Oberon, but
there’s no such dichotomy in Steel’s production. Lauren Joyanne Morris’s
Hermia may pack her suitcase during Britten’s opening ‘sleep chords’ –
disturbing the glissandi dreams with irreverent hustle and bustle – but
where are the lovers escaping from and to, and to where will they return?
It’s pitch black to begin with, so there can be no sense of deepening
darkness as the four aristocrats venture further into the forest. Moreover,
what are a troupe of ‘rustics’ doing in Weimar Berlin?

Thankfully, Steel’s concept is so illogical that neither he, nor the
audience, feel the need to ‘follow it through’. It was easy to ignore the
anachronisms, though the frequent references to the moon were irritating,
and simply enjoy some very strong singing from the Royal College
postgraduates. I particularly admired the strong melodic lines of the four
lovers, Morris, Josephine Goddard (Helena), Joel Williams (Lysander) and
Kieran Rayner (Demetrius): the quartet made much of Britten’s predominantly
scale-based lines and create dramatic distinctiveness too. All demonstrated
superbly clear diction.

When Peter Quince and his would-be thespians gathered for their rehearsal,
they might as well as have landed on the moon: their first scene was even
more disorientating than usual, although Hugo Herman-Wilson’s Quince worked
hard to keep ‘both’ shows on the road. The mechanicals sang and acted with
equal skill but Steel’s decision to resort to the usual broad humour in the
play-within-a-play was surely an opportunity missed. Britten may burlesque
his own genre – Flute’s Donizettian flights were reputed a vehicle for
Peter Pears’ party-trick lampooning of Joan Sutherland – but the
‘perfectly’ executed maladroitness of the Pyramus and Thisbe
stage-business seemed a weak choice given the chance offered by Steel’
locale for more biting satire.

Every time I hear Ida R‰nzlˆv sing, I want to hear more! She stole the show
in the title role of


at last year’s London Handel Festival, was a lustrous-voiced,
haughtily-mannered Fox in the RCM’s Cunning Little Vixen in
November, and also greatly impressed as the Daughter in British Youth
Opera’s production of Judith Weir’s The Vanishing Bridegroom’s
last September. Here, even though in the fairly small role of Hippolyta R‰nzlˆv
had less opportunity to shine, shine she certainly did – despite Steel’s
best efforts to subdue the Amazonian Queen by throwing, quite literally,
some domestic violence into the nuptial celebrations of Theseus
(confidently sung by Peter Edge) and his new bride.

In Shakespeare’s final scene Theseus speaks seriously and sensitively to
Hippolyta. She is a vanquished Amazonian Queen, forced to marry her
conqueror, but within the world of the play their courtly marriage is
decorous and controlled, a symbol of concord and order. Shakespeare, as so
often, employs a musical metaphor to confirm this: at the end of Act IV the
sound of Theseus’s baying hounds is joined with the pitches of his horns,
which are blown to wake the lovers, and the King declares, ‘Theseus: ‘We
will, fair queen, up to the mountain’s top/And mark the musical confusion/
Of hounds and echo in conjunction.’ Fortunately, R‰nzlˆv’s vocal dignity injected some reason and restraint into the proceedings.

Timothy Edlin was an excellent Bottom, but in this production his ‘Dream’ –
the heart of the play, and the opera, in which Bottom, in the words of one
critic, ‘reconfirms himself as a comic mirror for the general human
condition’ – failed to make much of a dramatic mark.

There was much fine singing, supported by excellent work by the orchestral
musicians who, despite their small numbers, conjured Britten’s musical
mysteries. But, Steel’s production has surprisingly scant dark disorder and
no midsummer magic.

Claire Seymour

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Oberon – Timothy Morgan, Tytania – Harriet Eyley, Hermia – Lauren Joyanne
Morris, Helena – Josephine Goddard, Lysander – Joel Williams, Demetrius –
Kieran Williams, Bottom – Timothy Edlin, Quince – Hufo Herman-Wilson, Snout
– Robert Forrest, Snug – Conall O’Neill, Flute – Thomas Erlank, Starveling
– Dan D’Souza, Theseus – Peter Edge, Hippolyta – Ida R‰nzlˆv, Puck – George
Longworth, Cobweb – Freddie Jemison, Mustardseed – Ethan Hocquellet, Moth –
Felix Barry-Casademunt, Peasblossom, Alexander Chan, Fairies – Samuel
Adebajo, Andrew Ah Weng, James Blaire, Joseph Cassidy, Sacha Cooper, Simeon
Wren; Director – Liam Steel, Conductor – Michael Rosewell, Costume designer
– Michael Pavelka, Lighting designer – Andy Purves, Royal College of Music
Opera Orchestra.

Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, London; Monday 5th
March 2018.

image_description=A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Royal College of Music
product_title=A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Royal College of Music
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: George Longworth: Puck

Photo courtesy of Royal College of Music