The Battle of Britten

[Edited 24 May because I forgot to insert an intended reference to The History Boys]

I was interested to see this review of the English National Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s operatic version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I generally like Britten’s work (I more than like his magnificent Cello Suites), but I’m not familiar with the opera, so I couldn’t possibly comment on the parallels the reviewer discerns between the staging and Britten’s personal life. However, I certainly can comment on the director’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s plot as reported in the review. There is nothing in Shakespeare to support the idea that Puck is Oberon’s abused, rejected son, and I can’t imagine how that idea can illuminate the play. (Lest you think I’m just being hopelessly conservative, I would be willing to consider a staging of The Tempest in which Caliban is the son of Prospero and Sycorax, even though it’s clearly stated that Caliban was on the island before Prospero arrived; such a staging wouldn’t be the first to discern a literal level in Prospero’s line “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.”) Still less do I see any merit in the idea that Puck grew up to become Theseus and dreams the play to work through his abuse traumas. Among other things, that would simply wreck Shakespeare’s carefully arranged oppositions between the mutually impermeable realms of the fairies and the humans. Of course, this is a staging of Britten, not Shakespeare, but it sounds rather more inspired by The History Boys (brilliant, brilliant play, by the way; I was lucky enough to see Richard Griffiths in it in New York) than by the Dream. Do keep these points in mind when we get to the Dream, though, along with the question the staging gives precisely the wrong answer to: whose dream is it?

Note that I am not suggesting that this production I haven’t seen is bad—just that it isn’t Shakespeare or likely to illuminate Shakespeare. If I were in London I would certainly see it and probably be moved to reflection by it. Here is a review from the Guardian that is far less equivocal than the Telegraph’s. And here is one from theartsdesk.com with a bonus clip of a staging by our old friend Baz Luhrmann!

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