Figure Ensemble’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” offers a memorable theatrical experience that weaves together Shakespeare’s genius, Mendelssohn’s evocative music, and the ensemble’s artistic vision. Led by Frederick Waxman, the orchestra of historical instruments beautifully complemented the play, while a tiny, unexpected modern twist in the music added some contemporary energy. The Holland Park venue, hidden within the park’s lush gardens, adds a touch of magic to the evening, with the sounds of nocturnal creatures enhancing the immersive atmosphere. Was it the best rendition of this play I’ve ever seen? Probably not, but it was certainly the most enchanting one.
Venue and Atmosphere:
The theatre, nestled within the park’s hidden corners, offered a delightful surprise for first-time visitors like myself. It’s been my first time at the Opera Holland Park, and I must admit, finding the theatre itself (located in the middle of the park) and enjoying the gardens and plants on my way, just added to the experience.
The stage came alive in the gentle breeze, creating an immersive theatrical experience. The whole experience had some special magic in it – especially as I was seeing this show just a week after the “real” Midsummer.
Music and Orchestra
Led by the talented Frederick Waxman, a 33-strong orchestra took centre stage, armed with historical instruments inspired by the 19th-century performances of Mendelssohn’s music. Mendelssohn wrote his Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream when he was only seventeen, after reading Schengel’s famous translation of the play. The rest of the incidental music was composed many years after, and included, among others, the “Wedding March”.
Figure Ensemble, a forward-thinking historical performance ensemble, decided to bring the classic Mendelssohn/Shakespeare pairing to the audience of Opera Holland Park. The inclusion of rare instruments, like the fascinating ophicleide, added a touch of intrigue to the musical performance. I had a pleasant ride home after the show – spent it googling all the instruments used in the show that I’d never heard of.
While remaining faithful to Shakespeare’s original vision, the ensemble injected a modern twist to the first act’s ending with the lively “Let’s get it on” moment, infusing the production with a burst of contemporary energy. And yes, it was a little out of the blue, and I can imagine created a slightly “marmite” moment in the show, but to me, it was a small, fun surprise – definitely on the positive side.
The orchestra seamlessly intertwined with the narrative, evoking emotion during dramatic moments, and beautifully complementing the chorus of fairies, consisting of adult and child performers ( with children from Theatre Peckham Academy Glee Club).
I liked how the real sounds of nature corresponded and sometimes enhanced the show, with the howling wind and barking dogs from the park unexpectedly representing a part of mother nature in the experience.
Costumes and Staging:
The costumes skilfully accentuated the contrast between the uptight Athenians, donning crinoline dresses and modest shirts (with subtle leather stripe elements, almost like a playful wink to the audience), and the free-spirited creatures of the forest.
The fairies, Titania, and Oberon wore wild and relaxed outfits that perfectly embodied their ethereal characters.
Titania’s dress was enchanting, with its flowing and delicate design that perfectly balanced between being revealing and regal. Meanwhile, Oberon’s fabulous outfit exuded colourful queer vibes, adding a refreshing and unique dimension to the character.
The stage transformed into a mythical world with white pillars, reminiscent of Ancient Greece. The ensemble’s clever use of long white fabric pieces, combined with captivating lighting, created a magical forest. During the second act, as the sun set outside the theatre, the stage bloomed with vibrant colours.
And again – it’s not your usual staging of the show, with colourful, crazy forest staging. This one is quite minimalistic, yet striking – I loved it but it may be underwhelming to some audience members used to a richer setting.
Acting and Comedy:
One of my favourite scenes was the dream sequence capturing Hermia’s (Hannah Rose Caton) nightmare – flawlessly executed, instantly transporting us into the realm of dreams through clever lighting effects.
Puck’s (Joelle Taylor) creative style, complete with signature loud sniffing, added a distinctive and entertaining flair to the mischievous character.
In the second act, the play within the play delivered a burst of humour and energy, highlighted by the actors’ impeccable comedic timing, lively physical performances, cartwheels, and infectious dance elements. However, the concluding moments felt oddly static and overly serious, creating a dissonance compared to the wild and energetic scenes that came before. The stage movement and energy didn’t seem to flow seamlessly for me.
Johan Munir’s portrayal of Demetrius – the jealous and – at times – annoyed lover, was nothing short of fantastic. Munir skilfully conveyed Demetrius’ complex emotions, seamlessly transitioning between his initial disdain for Helena to the eventual realisation of his true feelings. His performance was nuanced and compelling, capturing the essence of Demetrius’ journey with precision.
Emmanuel Olusanya (seen before in “Flashbang”, one of my favourite shows in 2022) as Lysander, exuded charm, wit, and a deep understanding of Lysander’s motivations and emotions. His delivery of the dialogue was natural and effortless, drawing the audience into the world of the play. It was a pleasure to witness his talent on stage again!
Unfortunately, the sound technicians faced some challenges during the performance, resulting in delays in activating the actors’ microphones. This occasional lapse made it somewhat difficult to fully grasp the intricacies of the plot, especially for those seated farther back, like myself.
Additionally, Bottom’s animal mask, while visually captivating, posed some issues with microphone placement, causing intermittent audio disruptions. Despite Jay Malier’s remarkable vocal delivery, this issue persisted throughout the performance.
About the play:
Opera Holland Park
New production by Figure
Play by William Shakespeare with incidental music by Felix Mendelssohn
Performed by actors and musicians of Figure with a children’s chorus from Theatre Peckham
Running time 2 hours 45 minutes including a 25 minute interval