first night

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Kabir Jhala takes a trip to the Gala Theatre for DOE's production of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'.

Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1960) may seem a safe choice for Durham Opera Ensemble’s annual Gala show; the appeal of performing Shakespeare’s most famous comedy is certainly undeniable when trying to draw in a crowd large enough to fill Durham’s largest performance venue. However, tackling Britten’s opera is anything but a safe choice. Difficult to plot and musically demanding, it lacks the famous overtures and crowd pleasing arias of previous DOE Gala productions, and the abstract nature of Britten’s soundscape when coupled with the comedic elements of Shakespeare’s play makes for a particularly ambitious student production. Yet despite one or two minor issues, the cast certainly rose to the challenge, deftly creating an enchanting and mysterious world whilst retaining the wit and absurdity befitting this comedy of errors.

Much congratulations must go to Conductor Kelvin Lee for skillfully managing to deliver the wonderfully ethereal atmosphere that symbolises the magical fairy kingdom of last night’s show, in particular the opening which effectively established the strange and enchanting tone of the night. The orchestra must also be praised for their strong and consistent performance which, considering the show’s three hour running time, is commendable. At times, the instruments overpowered some solo performances, though these instances were rare and will no doubt be ironed out for this evening’s performance.

Director Caitlin Brooks succeeds in effectively utilising lighting and staging to establish the three distinct worlds of the Fairies, the Lovers, and the ‘Rustics’. Indeed, much of the success of the show lays in its ability to shift smoothly between these worlds, allowing three plots to unfold and intertwine whilst maintaining the tonal distinctions between the mystical, romantic and folk-like narratives. Brooks makes a wise choice to physically place Oberon and Tytania on the highest level on the stage to signify their overarching roles as instigators of the opera’s chaos. These interrelated tales are all framed by a truly impressive set design: an imposing backdrop of a forest which loomed over the stage and made good use of the Gala’s capacity for technical feats, not normally feasible in most Durham student productions.

The Fairies’ strange and mystical world was led by strong performances by Lewis Cullen (Oberon) and Rowena Ashby (Tytania). Cullen handled the counter tenor role of Oberon with impressive control, delivering a suitably menacing and powerful performance, and Ashby’s voice proved capable of handling both the dramatic and the comedic elements of her character with flair. Indeed, Ashby gave one of the most polished and stunning performances of the night with her aria (‘Be Kind and Courteous’) in Act II, tackling Britten effortlessly. My only criticism is that I felt more could have been done with the playful, jealous relationship between Oberon and Tytania in order to give their characters greater depth.

As the only speaking role in the whole opera, Alabama Jackson’s portrayal of Puck imbued the character with a delightful sense of mischief and utilised physicality and movement well. Jackson’s impish movements were similarly echoed by the rest of the fairy chorus who, on the whole, added to the otherworldly nature of the strange dreamlike forest. However, the  occasional twirling of neon ribbon sometimes proved distracting and did little in the way of reinforcing tone, somewhat detracting from the otherwise excellently crafted atmosphere of the Fairy Kingdom. 

The most emotive performances of the night came from the four lovers, whose increasingly complex dynamic was both a wonderful source of comedy and tension. The strongest scene came in Act II as both Lysander (Laurence Kilsby) and Demetrius (George Evans-Thomas) vie for the affection of Helena (played by Emer Acton), highlighting the absurd nature of the situation and love itself. In particular, Acton’s emotive portrayal of Helena grounded the conflict and was one of the highlights of the show, as she gave a formidable performance displaying a skillful range of emotion and a terrifically commanding stage presence. Both Kilsby and Evans-Thomas also portrayed their characters with a very convincing range of emotion, one that was necessary for rooting their characters in a dramatic nature befitting of the lovers.

The abstract and dissonant soundscape of the fairies, as well as the lush and romantic harmonies of the lovers constructed in the first two acts, not only created a highly atmospheric tone but allowed the staging of “Pyramus and Thisbe” (a play within a play performed by the ‘Rustics’ in Act III) to really shine. Both the folk-like tonal change, nicely signified by a strong use of the pit orchestra’s brass section, and the decision to have all the cast on stage at once, contributed to a chaotic and riotous performance. Comic relief also came significantly from Bottom, played by Julian Purdy, who delivered his lines with a distinctive clarity and strength.

As a group, the ‘Rustics’ certainly felt the most cohesive to me and contrasted wonderfully with the otherworldly nature of the Fairies and the complex dramatics of the lovers. It was precisely this effective contrast between the worlds which allowed the bawdy physical comedy and crossdressing in Act III to make a far greater impact, and ultimately provide the loudest laughs of the night.

Now on its third Gala show, DOE continues to impress me with its continuing efforts to stretch itself creatively without compromising its professionalism at these productions. A bold decision to put on Britten has certainly paid off and all in all, maintained DOE’s high bar as a society willing to challenge itself and showcase the best of Durham’s operatic talent.

18 February 2017

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
Our theatre that speaks for itself

DST is proud to be supported by: PwC