In an artistic climate that celebrates the interweaving of different art forms and media, it is strange that we don’t see exciting collaborations like the RSC and Garsington Opera’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream more often. Garsington’s orchestra and choir take centre stage alongside the RSC actors in Douglas Boyd and Gregory Doran’s mash-up, pouring Felix Mendelssohn’s beautiful score over Shakespeare’s ever-popular text.
Rather than being patchworked together with this brutally cut version of the play, the music dissolves seamlessly into a distilled edition of the text, and the production comes close to creating the full opera that Mendelssohn never managed. The interaction between text and music is beautifully fluid: sometimes the text concedes the stage to the orchestra, with silent and skilfully choreographed stage business accompanying the music; other times the music accompanies and elevates Shakespeare’s words like a film score. There is a wonderful pause in the narrative, for example, where a female choir sings Titania a lullaby, and the effect is utterly enchanting.
However, while Garsington holds up their end of the bargain, it feels as though the RSC has not quite fully turned up to the party. Director Owen Horsley (under the creative guidance of Gregory Doran) makes creative and energetic use of young designer Rosanna Vize’s interesting and dynamic set, but when it comes to adding depth to the play’s easy, frothy comedy, he leaves the actors’ performances lacking. Although the actors extract the full measure of comedy from the play, there is no sense of the sky-high stakes, little chemistry between them, no real commitment, and not much going on below the surface. This might have been easier to hide at Garsington’s outdoor woodland venue, but under the spotlights of the Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, the performances need more precision to hit home.
The production is a wonderfully innovative and transportingly beautiful marriage of text and music, but with the RSC’s characteristically bold and skilful stagecraft sadly absent, it becomes too safe: a fluffy, sexless, and unchallenging romp rather than the explosive catharsis between two giants of modern performance that it could have been.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is playing at the Southbank Centre until 24 July, and at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford on 26 July. For more information, see the RSC website. Photo: Mark Douet.