The Fairy Queen (Sadler's Wells)

New Statesman, June 1977



Take any old play. Mince its words; chop and change its scenes. Add lavish portions of allegorical song, dance and spectacle; season liberally with erotic sauce and spice. Leave to be set by Purcell; and then serve throughout the lazy time between supper and bed. That recipe was much relished by the aristocracy of Stuart England; but the present-day citizenry may well find the taste unfamiliar or even unappetising. That typi­cal sample, The Fairy Queenhas been further cut, not to say doctored, for modern performance. But in other respects it must have seemed the, ideal Jubilee fare. The first-night audience arrived ready-primed and prepared for the genre. Pageantry, masque and revel had been the order of the day. The morning's glittering parades and resplendent processions, in the traditional manure, must already have plunged the entire populace into profound allegorical meditation.

    And what clearer symbolism could there be than the use of A Midsummer Night's Dreamas the background drama, with its simple yet lovable workers, its confused but estimable gentry, its worldly-wise and bene­volent government, and above all its royal realm of make-believe, whose very presence, is a mystery as well as a grace? Admittedly only the fairy crew had anything to sing about; but their four entr'acte masques (of Night, Love, the Seasons and Marriage) were composed by the sovereign master of English dramatic music. So the stage, like the streets, seemed set for a triumph.

    The trouble began with the spoken play. Words failed it. The villain of the piece was an anonymous hack known to theatre historians as “(? ) Elkanah Settle”. Thus the authorship is the converse of being a settled question; which is perhaps just as well, since it involves responsibility for what must surely be the wettest and limpest Dream in the history of evening entertainment. Even the talented players of the EMTO could make little of such ill-used parts, even with the best will in the world. The lordly lan­guage was so vilely mangled and garbled as to suggest perpetual confusion and misquotation. Some degree of reversion to the origi­nal text might have been better advised (despite the director's explicit disavowal in the programme notes).

    Further, the expression behind the mas­ques is either stupefyingly dull or else im­penetrably bizarre: Even Stuart audiences must have groaned at the inevitable Four Seasons; and the final scene is mysteriously diversified by Chinese and monkeys, perhaps representing two different kinds of puzzle., The production out-settles Settle by rehash­ing him in turn. Whoever had the idea of introducing Ophelia, it has to be pro­nounced a failure (although her drowning scene was vastly affecting, especially at the moment when she visibly and audibly touched Bottom). There were other more dubious touches. No doubt these evoked the authentic stage style of c.1700, when even the easy-going Defoe was moved to protest at the “Lewdness of the Actings”. But it is surely too blatant even for the unsubtle (?) Settle, let alone the refined Purcell, to illustrate Night by groping. By definition, we ought not to be able to see what Secrecy is up to.

    Otherwise the direction and production were tasteful as well as colourful; and together they achieved moments of real ritual and genuine jubilation. The plain circular setting of the fairy ring was adroitly stage-managed and choreographed by deft spacing and placing to display plenty of close dancing but no tripping. But of course it was the music that finally, turned the scales. Its inspiration is the more remarkable for being wholly non-Shakespearean; the two greatest English monarchs of the royal melodic line hardly met at any point. Instead. Purcell worked wonders with witless words written for him, drawing out their least hint of image or feeling into those bright strands of sound that Britten once described as “wonderful vocal parts and fine strong basses”.

    Among the five gifted principals I especially admired Ann Murray's fluent grace of line and John Tomlinson's resonant strength of tone. The orchestral playing under Stuart Bedford was suitably spirited or lan­guishing, enhanced in either mood by Nicholas Kraemer's musicianly harpsichord continuo. The diction and blending of the choral ensemble were memorably eloquent and balanced. In the performance as a whole, any minor infelicities were effaced by the strong impression of well-directed and purposeful corporate endeavour. That must make a special appeal to the nation in Jubilee year. Unhappily, so must this Company, which is also in financial difficulties. The EMTO, on this showing, well deserves support.