“In sleep we find in glorious colour
Things beyond our best imaginations.”
(Theophilus Kwek, ‘Prologue’)
Multi-coloured, accomplished, and with peaks of sublimity: Theatron Novum’s The Fairy Queen is an ambitious piece of theatre. It gives new life to Purcell’s ‘dramatick opera’, which in turn breathes music and dance into Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the quadricentennial of the Bard’s death, Oxford’s Shakespeare festival has showcased a plethora of performances inspired by the playwright and his work — from hip-hop Shakespeare to Macbeth with only two actors, the celebrations have highlighted how Shakespearean traditions are being continually resculpted and reformed. The Fairy Queen is the latest of these, and the opera transports us into a universe of dreams, in a feast for eyes and ears.
The acted plot follows the stories of the parallel worlds of mortals and fairies, the jealous love of Titania and Oberon, and the quadrangle of unfortunate lovers Helena, Hermia, Lysander, and Demetrius. In addition to this, the company of actors performing the myth of Pyramus and Thisbe and pastoral exchange between Mopsa and Corydon provide a parenthesis of more openly comic lightness. Among the talented and experienced actors, especially remarkable was the performance of Nick Bottom the Weaver (Gregory Coates), who embraced the comic aspect of his role with outstanding results. Equally noteworthy were the solo pieces of the Drunk Poet (Patrick Keefe) and Juno (Sofia Kirwan-Baez), as well as the chorus of fairies, singing as a both powerful and intimate ensemble.
The familiar plot of Shakespeare’s comedy is enriched in Purcell with arie sung by Fairies and allegories such as Phoebus and Hymen. These were inserted naturally into the acted plot, as in the aria of Night, Mystery, and Sleep, which gently blended music, opera singing, a hint of acting, and amazing dancing by brilliant gymnasts.
The majority of the play maintained this optimal balance between acted, danced, and sung moments, with sung parts spared and treasured like drops of a magic potion. Towards the end, the series of arie, coming with virtually no recitatives in between, felt perhaps heavier than the first half. Director Dionysios Kyropoulos decided to prioritise faithfulness to Purcell, at the expense of dramatic agility. The Fairy Queen was originally a masque, most likely composed as part of the celebrations for a royal wedding. Accordingly, the extensive music would have served a very different purpose in its original context, quite unlike the twenty-first century theatre. This perhaps needed a little more acknowledgement here, paradoxically taking more liberties with Purcell’s settings to get closer to the spirit of the original masque. Across the performance, it seemed that the moments that attempted to recreate a Baroque aesthetic were less successful than those which took the idea of entertainment as their guiding principle, and renovated Purcell’s music to fit its new context and audience.
Such an example was the director following the historical practice of commissioning a new prologue. The witty, wonderfully fitting piece composed by Theophilus Kwek provided an incomparable introduction to the performance, showing that innovation can benefit historical drama, and help it to remain relevant.
Dancing added a further layer to the performance, including choruses, duets, and solos. As the first choreographic enterprise in Oxford by Amy Thompson, the outcomes were laudable. Especially successful were the ensemble pieces with Titania’s fairies, as well as the final duet, ‘The Plaint’, which Thompson described in the programme as ‘a long journey, challenging physically, emotionally, and dramatically’. The highly sophisticated and ambitious choices in choreography, aimed at recreating Baroque dance gestures, were certainly a point of merit, and potentially explain the occasional difficulties in the duets. Overall, however, the presence of dancing did add a sprinkle of stardust to the whole performance.
Also in keeping with the dream-like soul of the opera were the genuinely impressive costumes, designed by Klara Kofen. The world of mortals wore puppet-like, black and white outfits, reminiscent of the Commedia dell’Arte, while the world of fairies was a triumph of colours, textures, feathers, and drapes. The chromatic choices contributed to differentiating the complex sub-plots in the opera. More generally, coupled with the original set design by Becca Thornton, and the magisterial lighting by James Percival, it was a true source of aesthetic delight.
A high-aspiring project, The Fairy Queen skilfully blends together different artistic means. It is both faithful to Purcell’s work, and shows that the magic of Shakespeare’s fairy queens and naughty spirits, as well as the power of art, is not at all out of place in this world.