a semi-staged production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Shakespeare Last night, the BBC broadcast one of its best pieces of arts television this year, though most people are unlikely to have heard it was on, let alone seen it. As part of Radio 3’s Mendelssohn weekend, the digital red button service simulcast a semi-staged production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream featuring the composer’s music, specially recorded in the lush environments of the Middle Temple Hall in London and featuring the Ladies' Choir of the Enlightenment, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and a fantastic cast who’ve been touring the show for years, including Australia.

Lucky for you, the BBC have put the performance up on their website and it’s a couple of hours well spent, helpfully chopped up into acts, in case you don't have the time to see it all at once. If you are thinking about watching it, I’d stop reading here, because it’s one of those experiences which is best visited unaware with all of the surprises intact. This is the good version of radio on television, and an absolute treat, just the thing to cheer me up after the rotten week I’ve had full of cold (the reason I’ve not been around these parts apart from the pre-prepared regulars).

I was weary. ‘Semi-staged’ suggests that like opera, we’d simply get a reading of the play from some actors sitting at front of the stage with copy books, filling in the text between the music. Sure enough, just before the orchestra begins, Martin Turner and Melanie Jessop stroll on and as the opening overture ends, they stand and begin to read opening scene between Theseus and Hippolyta with little sense of the meaning of what’s being said, bit of mugging. I’m disappointed and thinking about simply recording the rest of it so that I can skip to the music. But I know Egeus is due to make his entrance and I’m interested to see how they handle it.

The way the handle it is the reason I was still watching two and half hours later. When his moment arrives, at the back of the stage, behind the orchestra, another actor pops up and he’s playing Egeus, there’s an audible sigh of relief from the audience. Turner continues from his copybook for a bit then, when he finds himself emphasising a point, irascibly puts it down and continues with the business of acting and soon a full scale production is in flow, with the performers appearing from within the orchestra which then provides the backdrop for the show, the wood near Athens, with the musicians and joining in with the action, with Charles Hazlewood Charles Hazlewood (sporting the beard he presumably grows when it’s the Proms off season) even getting a line.

The rest of the performance is like that, constantly subverting expectations, and part of the fun is watching them cope with the some of the requirements of the play in a venue that should be relatively hostile in terms of environment to this kind of work. I can’t help marvelling at the way that some of the actors are able to double or even triple up as nobles, players and fairies and have us emotionally invest in all of the characters. At one point, I even thought I saw Elena Pavli who plays Hermia, Peter Quince and the First Fairy appearing as two of them in the same scene. It’s great too to see a piece of drama that relies on the audience’s imagination, to be able to tell when an actor has gone from noble to supernatural figure when they’ve turned on the fairy light they have stuck to their dinner jacket.

Hearing Mendelssohn's themes in context is a revelatory experience which as it fades almost seems to bring with it the night and the magical setting of the play, the final pulse of the flutes. The bit that everyone knows, the wedding march, is extraordinary in this full orchestral version, as potent at the Ode To Joy and about as celebratory as music can be. I love the way it’s employed here too, as the moment when Bottom comes out of his reverie, a fully formed human again, perhaps remembering his night with the fairy queen wondering if it was a dream. John Paul Connolly’s bedecked in a Domino’s Pizza uniform seems to be genuinely enjoying himself which means that we do to.

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