She was a vixen when she went to school


This is maybe my favourite line in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It comes from the scene where all sorts of ancient grudges emerge between Helena and Hermia.

On reflection, though, this set me wondering. I doubt if Thesean Athens (OK, that’s a legendary concept, but any historical counterpart) had much by way of school education for girls, and the position in Elizabethan England (given Shakespearian anachronism, this seems the appropriate criterion) can scarcely have been any better. I found a reference to girls and boys both going to “petty school,” which was apparently something a bit like infants school, where instruction seems to have been given by women (as in the later “dame’s school”) in an essentially domestic environment. This surprised me, because in this period you only ever read literary references to schoolboys (you know, dawdling on their way to school, etc), but on reflection it is possible that until boys were “breeched” (ie, put into pants) boys and girls could be and were taught together. Any further education for girls was definitely obtained privately. Elizabeth herself was such a prodigy because of the tutoring she received, which was entirely atypical, even for royalty.

All of which is to say that last Saturday I went to hear the SSO’s performance/production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Opera House.

The night was balmy and the atmosphere deliciously festive. Across Farm Cove some rehearsal for the Mardi Gras Harbour Party (shamefully shut down by the police dog squad two years ago) appeared to be in progress; one large cruise ship was docked at the International Terminal at Circular Quay, and another loomed luminously over Fort Denison in the middle of the harbour. Oddly, all of Hunter Street was declared a “Special Event Clearway” for the whole weekend – an aftermath, I can only guess, of the visit of the big Cunard ships a couple of years ago which has ever since sent the authorities into over-reactive bouts of traffic jam avoidance. A finger-nail sliver of moon hung in the western sky.

I was trepidatious as to how amplified actors would come across in the Concert Hall and also as to how loud they would be in relation to the orchestra. These fears proved to be well founded. The concert hall acoustic has a fairly generous echo which detracted from the clarity of some of the orchestral playing, as ever. I have found I tend to be more sensitive to this the more well-known the music (and hence recording-imprinted my acquaintance with it) is. And the overture, in particular, is a piece from my earliest orchestral listening experience.

The acoustic was even worse when dealing with the actors, especially when they raised their voices or were towards the front of the stage, when there seemed to be a kind of anticipatory pre-echo. Things were better when they spoke more slowly or more quietly. My main bug-bear, that amplification produces disparities of scale and is demeaning to any acoustic elements with which it is combined, was not dispelled, though I adjusted myself to overcome it as the evening went on.

An acquaintance who went on an earlier night said that many people near him (he was sitting near the front of the stalls) couldn’t follow the play at all and that there were quite a lot of walkouts at interval. I did notice a few more people than usual leaving at interval, but I put some of that down to the fact that, unlike the first half of a concert, the first half of a play nearly always labours under an expository burden. In addition, something which is a bit different will always encounter some resistance.

Allowing for all that, and overcoming the occasional irritation about the amplification, the whole thing was nevertheless delightful. I know, I’ve already said the atmosphere was deliciously festive, but I’m struggling to go to elegant variation when the literal sense is spot on. By the end of the evening, and for many points along, I was hugging an inward smile and warm glow that it is difficult to go beyond cliches to describe.

The orchestra (trimmed down a little – only 6 double basses) was in fine form even if occasionally things seemed to be a bit of a scramble. I would have preferred the Nocturne to be a little slower, but the dramatic context for the Entr’acte as Helena wandered alone in the woods was a revelation – as were, it seemed to me, some reverse-reminiscences between Mendelssohn’s and Britten’s music for the rude mechanicals’ performance at the end. The play was realised well, and by the end of the second half, the audience seemed well caught up in it.

Mr Ashkenazy had a small speaking role. I realised I had never heard him speak. His Russian accent was thicker than I expected.

And I cannot neglect to mention the Ophicleide! I have a special allegiance to this instrument (GB Shaw’s oft quoted “chromatic bullock” presumably really refers to the fact that historically it is without progeny) and it was at a performance at S James King Street about 10 years ago by a scratch band (mostly made up of SSO players) hired by the rich older friend of a young conductor that I first heard it in the flesh, in this very overture.

One of the pleasures of this sort of thing – a special pleasure, I think, of “classical” culture, is a sense of participation with the past – via Mendelssohn, reading the play with his family in German and English (I bet that must have sounded pretty funny) back to Shakespeare and the richness of allusion within the text itself – right back, indeed, to Theseus and Hypolita, the folk myth of Puck and Robin Goodfellow and the enchanted wood. These are deep cultural roots. Pictured above is volume 2 (which I took with me to read at interval) of a 12 volume series of Shakespeare’s plays . I had thought it was my grandmother’s, but on reflection it must have been my great-grandfather’s or even his father’s. That’s my own, strangely consoling, part of the same vertical and even vertiginous experience of the past, even though, sadly, one volume has gone missing. The title page is as pictured below:


5 Responses to “She was a vixen when she went to school”

  1. Ken Says:

    Good observations, M. It is a great pity that reviewers in the legacy media are these days limited to 400 words so we get few really thoughtful comments.
    For me (on Monday) the performance worked. I was doubtful at the start and I also was uncomfortable with the amplification. But we walked away happy.
    I am very tolerant of innovation in these things. I believe the format and conventions of concerts must change so I am inclined to make allowances. Few were necessary this night. I had heard from members of the orchestra that a has a very good relationship with them and this came over as well. A good change.

  2. Thom Says:

    Applause for Marcellous in offering the first review (despite him not being a critic) that communicated anything approaching a sense of what it was like to be at the performance. (“Hugging an inward smile” – beautiful words, couldn’t have put it better myself.)

    Ken’s point about the word-count limitations provides some excuse for those reviewing in the print media. Even so, a good writer (which those gentlemen of the press are) should be able to convey the spirit and flavour of a performance even in a few words.

  3. marcellous Says:

    Thanks, K, and very kind of you, T, though in fact Kevin Jackson has also written quite a detailed account, especially of the theatrical side of things.

  4. Thom Says:

    Thanks for the Kevin Jackson link. No column inch constraints there.

  5. ken Says:

    One day, some brave person will set up a website with reviews and previews of concerts. No space limitations, reviews of smaller concerts around town (which are often the most interesting) and other good stuff.. It can’t be long before the legacy media drop music reviews and it will be good to see the web do the job better.
    My guess is that presenters would be willing to advertise – they are becoming less happy with the papers – and a small annual sub – like Michael Sinclair’s could make it a business.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: