Purcell’s The Fairy Queen is a lighthearted opera that uses text from an anonymous source based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The setting is nineteenth-century mental institution Bedlam, and we are introduced to a range of flamboyant inmates, including the infamous painter Richard Dadd, who was imprisoned in the criminal section of the institution after murdering his father. The Shakespeare reference here comes predominantly from the cheeky midnight activities of two of the nurses, who sprinkle their magic over the sleeping inmates, causing some rather hilarious and lusty consequences. The rather surreal storyline gradually becomes more and more fantastical, capturing the essence of Shakespeare’s original.
This production by the English Touring Opera features some stunning trapeze artists, edgy contemporary dance and rather sweet puppets. Clearly this show is meant to be a visual feast, with breathtaking physical precision and bursts of subtly sexual choreography. Unfortunately, I felt that the puppets had simply been added for good measure, with such engaging action and pleasing aesthetics it seemed a little pointless to bring on puppets as well and they added little to the production.
The Fairy Queen comprises a series of seemingly disparate sections or masques that are designed to accompany A Midsummer Night’s Dream, rather than tell a congruous tale of their own, hence director Thomas Guthrie’s ability to completely subvert the original setting and characters and place it inside Bedlam. Some productions of The Fairy Queen are performed with spoken dialogue taking place to link the masques together and provide a more firm plot, however I was not too worried about being able to follow an exact direction and enjoyed dipping in and out of the dream-like snatches of fun. If you are able to forget about Shakespeare and take each offering in its own right then this circus-style comic opera contains some moments of real enjoyment for the audience. Aidan Smith’s raucous and pyjama-clad Drunken Poet leapt off the stage and accosted some of the poor audience members, resulting in a Benny Hill style chase around the auditorium. The characters of the other inmates were equally amusing, stumbling and bumbling around like children. Mark Wilde, as Richard Dadd, was unfortunately unable to sing so had to walk the part whilst Adam Kowalczyk sung for him from the side of the stage.
Roger Butlin’s design including a vaguely oriental looking backdrop and a recurring painted clouds motif greatly enhanced the atmosphere and reaffirmed the recontextualisation. The use of soft lighting and candles transported us from the ‘everyday’ first scene into the madness of the following scenes. The mischievous Titania and Oberon-esque nurses were fantastic and Bernadette Iglich’s saucy choreography gave us an injection of sexy sophistication to the proceedings.
As a relative new-comer to opera, I was extremely pleased to be able to enjoy a visual spectacle rather than feel isolated by long static sections of music I cannot completely understand or appreciate. I would highly recommend this production as a great starting point for exploring the genre and am relieved to see that opera is willing to push boundaries and surprise its audience, as other forms of theatre regularly do.