Magical menace

A startling production of Britten's opera A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream is many things -- deft operatic adaptation, feat of atmospheric orchestration, charming and subversive in equal measure -- but seldom, in my experience, moving. Christopher Alden's new production for English National Opera takes the work from English pastoral dream to urban nightmare, stripping metaphor and allusion away to reveal the something nasty that lurks in Britten's woods -- A Midsummer Night's Turn of The Screw. It's clever, provocative and against all odds the most darkly magical of reimaginings you're likely to see.

Biographical readings of Britten's music have become a wearisome cliché of the opera stage. The composer's homosexuality skulks below decks in Billy Budd, hides beneath the admissible abuses of Peter Grimes, and skips pointedly about in the shadows of Death In Venice and The Turn of the Screw. Placing the issue front and centre (the carved word "Boys" above the school entrance is never out of sight during the evening) Alden only keeps his production from becoming a meretricious abuse of directorial privilege through his absolute control and coherent working-out of the mise-en-scene.

Charles Edwards's set, groping out into the audience, ushers us into the central asphalt courtyard of a boys' school in the late 1950s. The silent procession of blazer-clad boys -- the fairies of the piece -- along the windowed corridors during those unearthly string glissandi of the Introduction is an image that lingers long behind the eyes. It brings into focus the music's anarchic stirrings, so often lost among leafy dells and RSC spirits, conjuring a shadowy magic in tune with Shakespeare's original.

In Alden's hands Oberon becomes a chain-smoking, slick-haired Latin master, a magus in spectacles and tie whose seductive incantation, "Esto quod es" ("Be what you are") dominates the blackboard behind him. Puck is his erstwhile favourite, now grown into adolescence and cast aside in favour of the young Indian boy. To complete the stages of manhood we have Theseus (though his identity is only late revealed), an old boy of the school, in whose dream-memory we are trapped, playing out fantasies of abuse and illicit encounters behind the dustbins, fantasies that must be purged (a purifying fire sequence achieves shocking impact) on the eve of his marriage to Hippolyta.

While Alden has his issues -- an over-reliance on the emotive caressing of walls by his characters, a tendency to complicate his case unduly (Tytania and Bottom's Act II flirtation with S&M) -- when allied to a cast who act as well as they sing, the effect of his transposition is to recapture the unmoored menace long lost by the play. We are disturbed, as we should be, by these youthful fairies who smoke, scheme and wear dark glasses, reawakened to the feral immorality of Oberon's troupe and uncertain that daylight and Theseus will bring resolution.

The conductor, Leo Hussain, works with Alden's vision, giving us a musical reading of uneasy strings and tense brass, drawing the percussive acid from the score. Only the Mechanicals' music, with its bel canto absurdities, fails to ignite, its stolid brashness needing greater vulgarity if it is to match the spare angularity of all around it.

As Oberon, an ailing Iestyn Davies was all gliding tread and sinister intent, leaving the role to be sung from the side of the stage by William Towers. While Towers's covered tone is perhaps a more authentic fit for the role created by Alfred Deller, it was hard not to miss the eerie purity and projection of Davies. An uncanny and infantilised Lucia last season, Anna Christy's Tytania is predictably otherworldly, but lacking the necessary vocal release in her Act II transformation. While Willard White demonstrates an unexpected gift for comedy as Bottom, matched dramatically by Simon Butteriss's mincing delight of a Starveling, it is Jamie Manton's conflicted and uncomprehending Puck who dominates dramatically, providing a warped counterbalance to the excellent quartet of squabbling lovers.

For some the subject matter alone will condemn this production; they will argue that the coy, closeted Britten would have detested it, that he would never have permitted such frank debasement of his material. Yet blind deference to authorial intention will take us only so far; listen to the eerie echoes of Peter Quint's celesta in Oberon's music, to the nervous tremolos of the Introduction, and try to argue that this is not the opera that Britten was afraid to write. In place of a smugly accomplished fairy tale we have a difficult, uncomfortable fable of the other, a musical and theatrical confrontation of all we suppress, sublimate and deny. For those brave enough to journey into Alden's lack of a wood, the rewards are great, and more potently evocative than any amount of musk-roses and eglantine.

English National Opera, London, until 30 June

Photo: Jonathan Cape
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Who’s the daddy? Two memoirs that examine the complexities of fatherhood

Both Fathers and Sons by Howard Cunnell and Fathers by Sam Miller chase what can never really be known.

About three-quarters of the way in to his striking memoir, Fathers and Sons, Howard Cunnell writes about a support group he attends at the Tavistock Centre in London with his son, Jay, who is trans.

He observes the other boys, their “look” – short hair, shaved at the back and sides, low-slung jeans, Converse trainers, caps. He observes their expressions and manner: “a lot of looking down, faces set to blank, whether out of fear and unhappiness, or an approximation of the hard mask boys often wear”.

Then he observes the other dads, “all of us trying hard to look like there’s nothing unusual about being here . . . recalibrating our speech and body language to masculine when we talk to our new sons”.

He calls Jay “mate”, ruffles his hair and pretends to punch him, that manly sock on the shoulder that signals a certain kind of defined gender identity. He asks himself, “What do the dads who don’t come think? The ones who think there’s something wrong with their child?”

He has no answer to those questions: only his understanding of what it feels like to be judged, or to imagine such a judgement. Fathers and Sons begins not with Jay but with Cunnell’s own early history, with the sense of permanent loss and recrimination he suffered when his father abandoned the family – he, his elder brother, Luke, and their mother. In his childhood in Sussex, his mother’s love is no cure for the wound he carries with him always: “I want other boys to like me because that might give the lie to what I know about myself. That I am worthless. That’s why my dad left.”

The reader understands, then, that from his earliest days Cunnell, a novelist and academic, has been haunted by the absence of masculine love, forced to ask himself why that particular lack should leave such a hole in his life. When his beautiful daughter becomes – with suffering and struggles – his beautiful son, he is again accosted by those issues, this time from the other side of the generational divide.

What does it mean, a father’s love? Does it signify something different to a daughter from what it does to a son? Perhaps so, but then every love has a different shape. Sam Miller’s memoir, Fathers, comes at paternity and the question of what it means to be a father from a no less arresting angle.

Miller is the middle child of Karl Miller, the founding editor of the London Review of Books and great British littérateur who died in 2014. Miller, Sr wrote two volumes of memoir of his own, Rebecca’s Vest (1993) and Dark Horses (1998). But as Sam discovered when he was a teenager, he is not, in fact, Karl Miller’s son, but the product of an on-again-off-again affair his mother, Jane, had with a family friend, Tony White – who died suddenly at the age of 45 as the result of a blood clot in his leg. Fathers is Miller’s heartfelt attempt to come to terms with his complicated family, to consider the meaning of fatherhood and to grasp at the ghost of Tony White.

Where Karl and Jane Miller lived a mostly settled life in Chelsea, Tony, a friend from their university days and widely loved by their circle of friends, was a wanderer. A talented actor and footballer, he worked as a translator, a lamplighter, a lobsterman in the west of Ireland.

From his own memoir, it seemed that Karl Miller loved his friend unequivocally, despite the affair between Tony and his wife. Sam quotes Karl’s description of Tony on the football field. “Tony was big and strong and eager, forever being cut and gashed,” Karl Miller recalled. “His rich dark eyes, boundless generosity and zest and his lavish brushstrokes on the field of play held us together.” It is clear to Sam that his father’s affection for Tony ran deep – and this book also explores the seeming mystery of masculine love.

Tony is a shining figure, always out of reach and, after his death, he seems even more unreachable because his biological son is his spitting image. When Sam finds a photograph taken at a Christmas party that his parents gave the year before he was born, it gives him a fright: it shows Karl, staring straight at the camera, with Tony standing, half hidden, behind him. “The head in profile appears to be me, as a grown-up – some 13 months before I was born . . . The upper parts of our faces are almost identical. And I just can’t understand how more of my parents’ friends did not guess I was Tony’s son.” They might have guessed without speaking, of course.

Both of these books, in very different ways, chase what can never be known. Cunnell’s is the more artfully written, a meditation as much as a memoir, the fragments of his life presented with a novelist’s eye for detail and language. The author uses pseudonyms for those close to him, but that does not make the book any less honest.

There is plenty of darkness here – as Cunnell grows to manhood, he seems to be heading for self-destruction, his restless life marked by violence and heavy drinking – and yet his account is suffused with light. The light of the Sussex Downs that washes his childhood; “tin-coloured clouds” racing across the moon when he finds himself in Mexico; light that gleams from page after page, “a floating frame of light” that shines over Jay’s bed when he was a small child. These images of brightness, of sun and shadow, make a prism of the book. Narrow ideas of what makes a father, what makes a son, are opened out into a rainbow of possibilities.

Miller, who worked for the BBC World Service for nearly two decades, takes a much more documentary approach, searching for evidence, photographs and letters, which nearly always fail to give him the answers he seeks. No wonder, for he seems to be alone in the world:

I came across no likeness, no one in literature or in life, who seemed similar to me, who was brought up as the middle child of a married couple, and then learned his father was not really his father, and that the two men were friends and remained friends. I have not yet met my double. And my situation, my story, seemed both unusual and, in the way it played out, surprisingly uncomplicated.

Or, as this book proves, as complicated as any life. His quest for a deeper understanding of his paternity is punctuated by his accounts of the months and weeks before his father’s death, a time to which he returns in his mind, painting a loving portrait of father and son. Something is missing, and yet nothing is missing.

Perhaps Sam Miller’s memoir offers more of a sense of completion than the author knows. Fathers is a book that circles around itself, asking questions that can have no answers, looking for truth where none can finally be found, and it is all the more moving for that. 

Erica Wagner’s latest book is “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” (Bloomsbury)

Fathers and Sons
Howard Cunnell
Picador, 224pp, £14.99

Fathers
Sam Miller
Jonathan Cape, 250pp, £14.99

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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