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

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear