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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Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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