Emerging from Garsington Opera’s pavilion at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we were greeted by enchanting lanterns, illuminating our pathway across the lawns to retrieve our picnic hampers. Unfortunately, this magical vision far outstripped anything in the previous three and a half hours traffic on the stage. Garsington’s first collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company married an abridgement of Shakespeare’s play with Mendelssohn’s incidental music, a union which promised much but which stumbled awkwardly, leaving me unable to indulge Puck’s plea in his epilogue “to 'scape the serpent's tongue”.

Forbes Masson (Bottom) and Oliver Johnstone (Puck) © Mark Douet
Forbes Masson (Bottom) and Oliver Johnstone (Puck)
© Mark Douet

Artistic Director Douglas Boyd conducted the orchestra, released from the pit onto a bare stage. A giant disc representing the moon was the evening’s one concession to nature, hovering high above a long platform at the back of the stage. This and two smaller platforms flanking the sides comprised the set. During the Overture, Oliver Johnstone’s Puck escaped from the woodwind ranks to begin proceedings.

In theory, a staging that places the orchestra at the centre of this play can work very well. I’ve seen it done splendidly. Here however, orchestra and conductor looked ill at ease. When Puck ambitiously threw Oberon the flower he has plucked from the rear platform, it landed mid-viola section. Not a murmur. No interaction or byplay between musicians and actors. They just looked embarrassed at being in the way, which was a pity as the orchestra often performed Mendelssohn’s music with gossamer delicacy. The Overture also boasted the presence of an ophicleide, its tubby warm notes a delight.

The score’s set pieces – Scherzo, Intermezzo, Nocturne and Wedding March – are justifiably famous, but the joy came in hearing all the nuggets of Mendelssohn’s incidental music intended to support dialogue, such as the episode where Puck draws the rival lovers together to remedy his earlier mistakes after Oberon decided to meddle in human affairs. The female chorus charmed, particularly in “You spotted snakes with double tongue”, Anna Sideris and Catherine Backhouse the eloquent soloists.

Simon Manyonda (Demetrius) and Hedydd Dylan (Helena) © Mark Douet
Simon Manyonda (Demetrius) and Hedydd Dylan (Helena)
© Mark Douet
Owen Horsley’s direction misfired. He chose to provide a contemporary staging, Helena and Hermia entering in cocktail dresses, carrying picnic hampers, as if they’d just strolled across from the car park. Lysander and Demetrius attempted to navigate their way through the forest with street maps, when any savvy techie would surely be using GPS on their mobiles. It jarred uncomfortably alongside Mendelssohn’s music. The choreography through the interludes was clumsy, the worst example being the Mechanicals rehearsing their “Bergomask Dance” during the Scherzo, destroying the intended musical depiction of Oberon’s fairyland. The performance of “Pyramus and Thisbe” stepped boldly across the line when slapstick just becomes crude.

The desire to abridge Shakespeare’s text was understandable, considering Mendelssohn’s music alone takes up nearly an hour. However, where neat scalpel was required, the results bore the signs of the butcher’s cleaver. Shakespeare’s text relies on its iambic pentameter and rhyme – for the lovers and fairies, at least. It was therefore crass, for example, to retain Helena’s “Lysander if you live, good sir, awake” only to then cut the waking Lysander’s “And run through fire I will for thy sweet sake.” To scythe the “Bottom’s Dream” episode entirely was odd, especially given Forbes Masson’s sympathetic handling of this gentle ass.

Marty Cruickshank (Titania) and Chris Lew Kum Hoi, Sophie Khan Levy, Jake Mann and Chris Nayak © Mark Douet
Marty Cruickshank (Titania) and Chris Lew Kum Hoi, Sophie Khan Levy, Jake Mann and Chris Nayak
© Mark Douet

Other casting decisions puzzled, chiefly a “mature” Titania and Oberon. When Titania takes to her bower – a striped deckchair – she is given a blanket to put over her knees, conjuring an unconvincing image for a seductive queen of the fairies. Among the successes, Joan Iyiola’s indignant Hermia impressed, as did Hedydd Dylan’s willowy Helena, their Act III spat splendidly vehement. This Garsington-RSC collaboration transfers to London’s QEH and then to Stratford, but this is a Dream devoid of magic.