Always read the small print: otherwise you wind up attending a heavily-cut (108’) spoken account of Shakespeare’s actual play with a small amount of incidental music by Mendelssohn played by an even smaller orchestra in the quaint belief that it is going to be Britten’s opera. Alas. As it happens, I’m quite familiar with boiled-down renditions of Shakespeare’s Athenian comedy, since one version of it was grafted on to and draped all over Purcell’s The Fairy Queen down at Glyndebourne recently in Jonathan Kent’s riotous staging; and Kurt Masur gave a complete account of the Mendelssohn music with the LPO at the RFH ten or so years ago, with Sally Matthews and Carolyn Watkinson as the soloists – with all of four minutes’ music to sing between them – narrated by Timothy West (who got completely lost, and had to be bailed out by La Matthews, clearly keeping a close eye on the score even though she’d long finished her nugatory part in proceedings).
The musical side of things tonight was in safe hands under Douglas Boyd, though his tearaway tempo for the rustics’ music in the overture involved an unseemly (and unwritten) gear-change, and, worse, deprived the onomatopoeic hee-haws in the orchestra depicting Bottom’s transformation into a donkey of their recognisability. Elsewhere, the modest forces (24 strings) made a reasonable showing, though with this kind of numbers at your disposal I’m slightly surprised that a more “original instruments” approach wasn’t taken, since it’s one thing for a band to sound scrawny in pursuit of Aufführungspraxis, quite another to do so on modern instruments. The 12-strong female chorus sang well, though the use of two of them to put “Ye spotted snakes” across was perhaps a tad overoptimistic, especially given their placement right at the back of the QEH’s surprisingly spacious platform. I can’t say that the semi-mini-staging of the play did much for me, the RSC’s casting now so in hock to the various orthodoxies and correctnesses of the day that it’s not only colour-blind, but age- and gender-blind as well, which is doubtless admirable in theory, but is alas preposterous to have to watch in practice.
The direction is credited to “Owen Horsley under the creative guidance of Gregory Doran”, and though a “Design Associate” is listed, all we saw on the South Bank was two raised IKEA platforms, one on either side of the stage, with flights of steps up to in front and away from behind, which led to any amount of frantic running around up and down steps effectively to no purpose. This might work if, when they all eventually stop running, there’s a clearly defined and demarcated neutral space preferably atmospherically lit and redolent of something scenically. But there isn’t. And then we get a – traditional enough – doubling of Theseus and Hippolyta / Oberon and Titania, except here they’re played by a redoubtable pair of troopers EVEN older than me – imagine that! – as both the aristocratic and fairy couple, and an ill-assorted batch of four young lovers, plus Snug the Joiner (who’s landed with the Lion in the mechanicals’ masque) cast as a woman, thereby making nonsense of the male Francis Flute having to play the female Thisbe out of no-alternative necessity. Worse, the casting of Bottom as a charmless Scots motormouth got thoroughly on my nerves, and I sat there, my mind drifting back to memories of Patrick Stewart (when young) as Oberon and dear, departed Richard Griffiths as the most sympathetic and touching Bottom imaginable. But I don’t suppose “touching” and “Bottom” can even be mentioned in the same sentence these days, yet alone pined for, so I’ll just content myself by observing that I found it all very dispiriting to have to watch, frankly, and such music as there was scant compensation.
Still, the audience – most of whom, for whatever reason, seemed to have turned up on the door – was enthusiastic to a degree, and if you like this sort of thing, then undoubtedly, this is the sort of thing you’ll like