“Sing and dance it trippingly,” Oberon commands his fairies at the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Sir Frederick Ashton’s choreography for The Dream follows Oberon’s requirements precisely: light and nimble movement, with ample “fairy grace”. Launching Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Shakespeare season, marking the 400th anniversary of the death of its local playwright, The Dream is paired with another perfect Ashton distillation of a classic play – A Month in the Country, based on Ivan Turgenev’s poignant slice of Russian middle class life. They make a charming pairing.

William Bracewell (Oberon) and Natasha Oughtred (Titania), <i>The Dream</i> © Roy Smiljanic (2012)
William Bracewell (Oberon) and Natasha Oughtred (Titania), The Dream
© Roy Smiljanic (2012)

Peter Farmer’s gauzy, moonlit forest, atmospherically lit by John B. Read, is the setting for Shakespeare’s nocturnal shenanigans as lovesick humans invade Oberon’s fairy kingdom. Fairy queen Titania has crossed her husband, stubbornly refusing to give up an Indian boy to be his page. Cue Oberon’s vengeance via means of a magic flower which, when sprinkled on her sleeping eyes, will make her fall in love with the next thing she sees. In this case, it is the weaver Nick Bottom, turned into a donkey by the mischievous Puck. Misapply the same potion to Demetrius and Lysander (as Puck does) and confusion also reigns among the four human lovers.

After vinegary tuning in the famous opening woodwind chords, the Royal Ballet Sinfonia under Tom Seligman gave an accomplished account of Mendelssohn’s elfin music, pixie-fingered strings scuttling and scampering delightfully. Skilfully patched and stitched together by John Lanchbery, the score gives leitmotifs to characters; for example, the turbulent Intermezzo is used whenever Helena appears, in pursuit of Demetrius who does not return her love.

Feargus Campbell (Bottom), <i>The Dream</i> © Roy Smiljanic (2012)
Feargus Campbell (Bottom), The Dream
© Roy Smiljanic (2012)
Ashton’s choreography teems with delicacy from the moment the corps of fairies, in blue tulle and lacy wings, momentarily freezes at the end of stuttering musical phrases in the overture. There is gentle humour too, with Feargus Campbell’s rustic Bottom rising briefly to dance on pointe – on hoof – to braying brass and squealing clarinet once Puck transforms him into an ass. He nuzzles into Titania’s back as they dance a stately pas de deux. The four human lovers are well delineated; Laura Purkiss’ ditzy Helena standing out. Yet it’s the fairy trio on whom Ashton lavishes his magic.

Sporting a mop of blonde ringlets, Jenna Roberts’ Titania sparkles against William Bracewell’s haughty Oberon. The Nocturne becomes a touching reconciliation pas de deux – one of Ashton’s longest – elegantly danced, with melting arabesques. In sharp contrast comes Tzu-Chao Chou’s inexhaustible Puck, an airy sprite, full of elastic split jumps and flicks, strong on mischief if not on mystery.

A very different world is created in A Month in the Country. Julia Trevelyan Oman’s gorgeous designs evoke a wealthy Russian country estate in which Turgenev’s wistful study of simmering passions and melancholy is set, against three Chopin scores. Young tutor Beliaev casts a spell over everyone, including unfulfilled housewife Natalia Petrovna and her ward, the precocious Vera. Beliaev innocently flirts with them all – even the maid, Katia – but it is Natalia who truly touches his heart. When their burgeoning romance is discovered, Beliaev is forced to leave.

Delia Mathews (Natalia Petrovna) and Iain Mackay (Beliaev) <i>A Month in the Country</i> © Bill Cooper
Delia Mathews (Natalia Petrovna) and Iain Mackay (Beliaev) A Month in the Country
© Bill Cooper
Ashton deliciously introduces each of Turgenev’s characters in Chopin’s Varations on “Là ci darem la mano” (Mozart’s seductive duet from Don Giovanni), sparkling under the fingers of pianist Jonathan Higgins. Delia Mathews conveyed Natalia’s unhappiness well, trapped in marriage just like the bird in the gilded cage at the back of the drawing room. She was aided by telling little Ashton touches, such as when her admirer Rakitin arrives. He touches her on the shoulder from behind, she turns expectantly then her face drops, betraying that she had hoped it was Beliaev. Iain Mackay brought a pensive quality to the young tutor, partnering Mathews elegantly in their climactic pas de deux, all swooning bourrés and swooning violins as she succumbs to her feelings.

Karla Doorbar’s impulsive Vera was wonderfully vivacious, until she eventually discovers Natalia and Beliaev’s romantic liaison in a fit of fist-waving anger. Mathias Dingman brought energy to the role of Kolia, Natalia’s son, bouncing his ball or merrily flying the kite Beliaev gives him. Michael O’Hare is blithely innocent as Natalia’s husband, until Vera blows the whistle. Beliaev is sent packing, leaving Natalia silently devastated at the final curtain and the audience understandably in subdued mood. A downbeat end to a charming double bill.

****1