‘The Play’s the Thing’: Shakespeare and Mendelssohn Combine to Excellent Effect

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Garsington Opera 2015 – William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream with incidental music by Felix Mendelssohn: Members of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Anna Sideris (soprano), Catherine Backhouse (mezzo-soprano), Chorus and Orchestra of Garsington Opera / Douglas Boyd (conductor). Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 22.7.2015 (JPr)

Garsington Opera RSC Ross Armstrong Joan Iyiola Forbes Masson Simon Manyonda Hedydo Dylan Marty Cruickshank credit Mark Douet
Ross Armstrong,  Joan Iyiola,  Forbes Masson  Simon Manyonda, Hedydo Dylan, and Marty Cruickshank (c) Mark Douet

Lysander: Ross Armstrong
Helena: Hedydd Dylan
Egeus / Philostrate: David Collings
Flute / Mustardseed: Chris Lew Kum Hoi
Hermia: Joan Iyiola
Puck: Oliver Johnstone
Starveling/Moth: Jake Mann
Demetrius: Simon Manyonda
Snout / Peaseblossom: Chris Nayak
Oberon / Theseus: David Rintoul
Quince: Tim Speyer
Bottom: Forbes Masson
Titania / Hippolyta: Marty Cruickshank
Snug / Cobweb: Sophie Khan Levy

Director: Owen Horsley (under the creative guidance of Gregory Doran)
Design Associate: Rosanna Vize
Lighting Designer: Caroline Burrell

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the one (only?) Shakespeare play to which I am happy to return time and again. ‘The course of true love never did run smooth’, remarks Lysander near the start and the truth of this soon becomes clearly apparent in what is one of his best-loved comedies, where fantasy, magic, mischief and slapstick unite against the backdrop of Theseus’s Athenian Court and a feuding fairy kingdom ruled by Oberon and Titania. Also thrown into this mix are six ‘Rude Mechanicals’ who are attempting to put on a play-within-a-play. There are probably darker elements to the plot such as Hermia’s father being willing to send her to a nunnery or have her executed if she does not marry the man of his choice. And what is that stuff all about concerning Titania’s Indian page boy that Oberon demands from her? As I did on this evening – and have done countless times before – it is best to just sit back and enjoy Shakespeare’s eternal battle of wills, misunderstandings, and all the ensuing fun.

Mendelssohn wrote his incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1842, 16 years after he wrote the more familiar Overture. It was written for King Frederick William IV of Prussia for a performance of the play on 14 October 1843 at Potsdam. These days, putting on the play and including everything Mendelssohn wrote would be inconceivable for any theatre company so it was an interesting idea for Wormsley’s Garsington Opera – with its orchestra and chorus – to invite the Royal Shakespeare Company to perform an abridged version of the play to Mendelssohn’s complete score.

The original Overture was incorporated into the incidental music as the first of its 14 numbers. There are also vocal sections and some other purely instrumental movements, including a Scherzo, Nocturne and Wedding March. The vocal numbers include the song ‘Ye spotted snakes’ and a number of melodramas where music is designed to enhance Shakespeare’s text. Act I is generally played without music. The Scherzo, acts as an intermezzo between Acts I and II. There is then the first melodrama, a passage of text spoken over music. Oberon’s arrival is accompanied by a fairy march, scored with triangle and cymbals. ‘Ye spotted snakes’ opens Act II’s second scene. The second Intermezzo comes at the end of the second act. Act III includes a quaint march for the entrance of the Mechanicals. We soon hear music quoted from the Overture to accompany the action. The Nocturne accompanies the sleeping lovers between Acts III and IV and there is only one melodrama in Act IV which closes with a reprise of the Nocturne to accompany the mortal lovers’ sleep. In the RSC’s abridged version it was now interval time.

The famous Wedding March – probably the most popular single piece of music Mendelssohn ever composed – was originally the intermezzo between the last two acts. Act V contains more music than any other, to accompany the wedding feast. There is a brief fanfare for trumpets and timpani, a parody of a funeral march, and a Bergomask dance which makes significant use of Bottom’s ‘braying’ from the Overture. There are three brief epilogues. The first is introduced with a reprise of the theme of the Wedding March and the fairy music of the Overture. After Puck’s speech, the final musical number is heard – ‘Through this house give glimmering light’, scored for soprano, mezzo-soprano and chorus. Puck’s famous valedictory speech ‘If we shadows have offended’ is accompanied, as day breaks, by the four chords first heard at the very beginning of the Overture, bringing everything full circle and wrapping it all up.

Overall the music was well played by the small Garsington Opera Orchestra and spiritedly conducted by Douglas Boyd with the chorus and soloists Anna Sideris and Catherine Backhouse doing well during their small contributions, notably in the ‘fairies’ song’, ‘Ye spotted snakes’, as Titania is lulled to sleep. Heard on their own during the Overture the sound from the orchestra was not as ethereal as it must be. However, as the evening progressed the marriage of words and music became well-nigh perfect. In the intimate setting of London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall it was revealing how much Wagner’s music owes to Mendelssohn and that probably explains why he became one of Mendelssohn’s fiercest critics!

Owen Horsley’s staging mixed the tradition with the modern and this extended to the casting that seemed admirably keen to eschew any unanimity of age, gender, ethnicity, accents, costuming and acting styles. It is as though the Royal Shakespeare Company looked around and collected together some of those who happened to be available and find them a part to play. In 1971 there was a TV adaptation for the BBC of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Robert Stephens as Oberon and an exceptional cast including Eileen Atkins (Titania) and Ronnie Barker as Bottom. This is my ‘benchmark’ performance which is always – wrongly or rightly – in my mind whenever I sit down to see the play again. I also played Oberon myself when I was much younger and I suspect that was the definitive portrayal of this role … only joking!

Rosanna Vize’s eclectic modern clothes and spare set evoked nothing of the period or location of Shakespeare’s comic masterpiece. This was rather jarring at first but increasing less relevant as the story-telling became more convincing and Mendelsohn’s sublime music created more and more of the requisite magical atmosphere. At the back over the orchestra there was basically a large moon and a platform for the singers on which all the characters could run hither and thither as they did across too smaller bits of staging on either side at the front of the stage.

I often have seen actors double up as Theseus/Oberon and Hippolyta/Titania but I wonder have these characters ever been played by two who are not in the first flush of youth as David Rintoul and Marty Cruickshank are. They brought gravitas to their ruling class roles and their ‘old school’ acting gave them an otherworldly presence as ‘fairies’. Rintoul thankfully looked remarkable good when having to play Oberon bare-chested behind a white dinner jacket. I was a bit sorry for Marty Cruickshank who is undoubtedly a fine actress but was made to go about as if an escapee from a care home. That was the only thing about Owen Horsley’s production I could not eventually come to accept. The four lovers grew on me and especially Hedydd Dylan’s Helena that I cannot remember seeing performed better. I eventually realised that Puck was Oliver Johnston who came initially out of the orchestra and acted on occasions as an onstage/offstage conductor …if this makes any sense. Together with Oberon they did provide real touches of magic when transferring the flower with the love juice between themselves!

Best of course – as always – were the scene-stealing Mechanicals, including a fabulous Flute/Thisbe from Chris Lew Kum Hoi, thick red lipstick and all, and a genuinely funny Bottom from Falkirk-born Forbes Masson whose accent as Pyramus had the lilt of his compatriot Billy Connolly, as well as, something of his comic timing. I was also impressed by Sophie Khan Levy as Snug who gets the ‘lion’s part’ and here was given a mane made of large paint brushes and Chris Nayak as Snout, one of the funniest ‘walls’ I have ever seen.

To quote the Bard: ‘The play’s the thing’ and it won in the end … and Mendelsohn’s music helped a lot too!

Jim Pritchard