Heading to the Coliseum for A Midsummer Night’s Dream amid snow and ice is a disconcerting prospect – “hot ice and strange snow” indeed. Forget wild thyme blowing and substitute a wintry Siberian blast whistling down your neck. Robert Carsen’s production, which originated at the Festival D'Aix en Provence a lifetime ago in 1991, certainly has an austere, glacial aesthetic, but his treatment of Britten’s Shakespearean comedy is anything but chilly. He offers madcap fun and Puckish pratfalls but, when it matters, there is stillness and touching sincerity. It remains a knockout bit of theatre.

Joshua Bloom (Bottom) and Soraya Mafi (Tytania) © Robert Workman
Joshua Bloom (Bottom) and Soraya Mafi (Tytania)
© Robert Workman

Carsen’s staging hasn’t been seen at ENO since 2004, replaced in 2011 by Christopher Alden’s public school setting which, portraying Oberon as a paedophiliac headmaster, sharply divided audiences. Happily, all is mended with the restoration of Carsen’s Dream, lovingly revived by Emmanuelle Bastet who has been with the show since its Aix première. Being Carsen, there are beds. Blue-haired, green-moustachioed fairies in tailcoats, like goblin butlers, peel back the set’s green sheet to reveal a pair of supersized white pillows. These are replaced by smaller beds later on, three with an aerial quality that makes for a breathtaking opening to Act 3. Oberon and Tytania are dressed for sleep, he in a green, crushed velvet dressing down, she in a midnight blue silk nightie. Puck is ready for mischief, a dirty old man in a trench coat who flashes the fairies and tumbles tirelessly in this bed-hopping farce.

David Webb (Lysander), Clare Presland (Hermia), Matthew Durkan (Demetrius), Eleanor Dennis (Helena) © Robert Workman
David Webb (Lysander), Clare Presland (Hermia), Matthew Durkan (Demetrius), Eleanor Dennis (Helena)
© Robert Workman

The quartet of young lovers begin all in white, becoming increasingly grubby and grass-stained – and stripped of clothing – as the show progresses and they couple up under the sheets. Their quarrel as Lysander and Demetrius compete for Helena, while Hermia is betrayed, is brilliantly choreographed (originally by Matthew Bourne) for maximum laughs, as is the Mechanicals’ shambolic staging of Pyramus and Thisbe. A lot of the show’s success is down to Carsen simply respecting the libretto – the Bard neatly filleted by Britten and Pears without the need to rewrite him and without pasting anything else onto it.

Timothy Robinson (Snout/Wall) and Joshua Bloom (Bottom/Pyramus) © Robert Workman
Timothy Robinson (Snout/Wall) and Joshua Bloom (Bottom/Pyramus)
© Robert Workman

Making his house debut, Alexander Soddy, music director of the Nationaltheater Mannheim, drew playing of crystalline beauty from the ENO Orchestra. The company has fielded a young cast for this revival, with five members of its Harewood Artists Programme involved, although a few sounded underpowered in the Coli’s vast auditorium. They have been meticulously rehearsed, though, so the show fizzes along and their diction is largely clear, negating the need for reference to the surtitles. Vocally, the Fairy King and Queen reigned. Christopher Ainslie’s silky countertenor impressed as Oberon, “I know a bank” seductively delivered, while Soraya Mafi’s diamantine coloratura sparkled as Tytania – she sounds completely secure up in the soprano stratosphere. Emil Wolk (the show’s long-standing Puck) has taught Miltos Yerolemou well, a physically demanding role, pugnaciously delivered.

Christopher Ainslie (Oberon), Soraya Mafi (Tytania) and the Trinity Boys Choir © Robert Workman
Christopher Ainslie (Oberon), Soraya Mafi (Tytania) and the Trinity Boys Choir
© Robert Workman

Of the four lovers, Clare Presland and Eleanor Dennis (marvellous in Netia Jones’ production at the Aldeburgh Festival) repeated their success here, Presland’s warm, syrupy mezzo making much of Hermia’s indignation while Dennis soared in ensemble. More established artists played the Mechanicals, peppered with various West Country accents. Rob Murray’s Flute made the most of his bel canto diva opportunities as Thisbe, and Jonathan Lemalu’s Snug was lovable. Joshua Bloom’s Bottom was played pretty straight with a smooth bass-baritone, although – the production’s only minor fault – his donkey mask muddies his words too much. Full marks to the golden-voiced Trinity Boys Choir, especially the quartet of disdainful fairies donning gloves when bidden to scratch behind Bottom’s ears. Their lilting final chorus as the reunited Tytania and Oberon grant their blessings – beautifully staged with the fairies plucking at violins – had the desired effect. [Exit, tear-stained]

****1