Director Dominic Hill tells Keith Bruce about his delayed production of Britten for Scottish Opera
The artistic director of Glasgow Citizens Theatre, Dominic Hill, should not really have been available to open a new production of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Scottish Opera this month.
If all had gone according to plan, he would have been moving his company back into their home in the Gorbals after the theatre’s refurbishment. But then, if all had gone according to plan, his new staging of Britten’s take on Shakespeare’s much-loved comedy should have opened two years ago.
The combination of delays in the comprehensive re-modelling of the Citizens and the global pandemic has put Hill’s schedule through the mill – a situation many people will recognise, and appreciate the philosophical attitude the director seems able to bring to it.
“We hope that we’ll have the keys at the end of the year, and the first few months of 2023 will be fitting out before we open the doors late spring or early summer,” he says. “Fingers crossed.”
“Timing-wise it has worked out quite well,” he recognises. “We were meant to be getting into the theatre about now, but that’s been delayed by a year or so. In some ways the pandemic has been a blessing – there are worse times to be doing a refurbishment.”
Hill’s production of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the first major casualty of Scottish Opera’s programme when the pandemic struck. The cast and crew were on the final run-in to opening night when Covid closed all theatres that were not already dark as a result of a renovation programme.
“We were in rehearsal as it was all kicking off. We did the floor-run and then we were told it wasn’t going to happen,” Hill remembers. “We did think we’d get into the theatre and at least tech the show, so we all went home saying, ‘See you on Thursday’, and then even that couldn’t happen.
“It was a strange thing because we never got to say goodbye to anybody, it just finished.”
That sense of unfinished business was with the director for two years as the opera company pressed on with an imaginative programme of filmed and outdoor work that was an example of determined response to the crisis. Hill’s production had to wait until conventional presentation was back on the agenda.
“It’s great that it is one of the first shows to come back,” says the director. “We left the rehearsal room and the set was up, and we’ve come back and it looked as if it had just been there for the last two years.
“In some ways it felt like nothing had happened, but at the same time most of the cast are new. So it is a bit like a revival as well as being a continuation of a rehearsal process with different people – a weird hybrid thing. But I guess I’m just thinking about it as if we are doing it from scratch really.”
That does not mean that all the work of two years ago was wasted.
“We are making some changes and tweaks and there are a couple of scenes staged differently, but on the whole it is the same production. I watched a rather blurry video of that floor-run and thought what we’d done was OK, so it is pretty much as envisaged originally. Most of the mechanicals – apart from Starveling and Flute – have come back, and one of the lovers [soprano Charlie Drummond] was in it last time, but everyone else is new, so it feels like a new cast.”
Coming to Britten’s work from his “day job” in the theatre, Hill is acutely aware of the opera’s relationship to the play, and the fact that it is much closer than some other musical versions of Shakespeare.
“Compared to something like Macbeth and Falstaff, where the libretto is filtered through Italian translations of Shakespeare, you’ve got Shakespeare’s text and it needs honouring as something in itself.
“It needs to be approached with the same sort of enquiry and detail that one brings to directing the original text. There are scenes that need directing as pieces of theatre with character motivation and staging issues to be addressed. I hope we have approached it with rigour towards the libretto as well as the music.”
Hill is conscious that such an approach makes particular demands of his cast.
“The singers have what is not always the easiest music, and have to marry that to a dramatic impulse. It is a very physical production, particularly for the lovers, with a lot of rolling around and fighting, and the choreography of that needs learning as well as their brains engaging with the technical demands of the music.”
The director is determined to have the advantages of both the opera and his knowledge of the play available to the production, as well as some reflection of the circumstances of its composition.
“The music of the forest world, the dream world, I find absolutely exquisite, and it has a kind of otherness that can only be created through music. But one thing I have done is taken the structure of the play a little more, so we begin at the end of Act 1 Scene 1 of the play, as it were, and stay in the court for a little bit longer.”
It is the music, however, that dictates the stage world that the production inhabits.
“It is based on Tytania and Oberon’s duet about the state of the world, so it is a ravaged and muddy kind of world. It is a post-war world to which Theseus has returned with his war-bride, and that picks up on the post-war world in which Britten wrote it.”
Scottish Opera’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream has three performances at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal on February 22, 24 and 26 and three at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh on March 1, 3 and 5.
Rehearsal picture by Jane Barlow shows Lea Shaw as Hermia and Jonathan McGovern as Demetrius