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  • Something spooky down in the woods today…

    Photo Alastair Muir

    Take one familiar Shakespeare play made up of mortals, immortals and a gang of rude theatricals. Turn into a popular opera in which half the play is gone, the fairies are all boys and the big story is Tytania’s mistaken love for an ass. Spice up in a new version set in a grey state school where Oberon wants to have his way with the boy, jealous Puck sulkily observes his own dream and all the fairies wear sun-glasses and blazers and smoke.

    This is the recipe for an unnerving show booed by some and slated by one critic (who still loved it) as ‘nasty and gratuitous’. ENO is ambitiously setting out its stall as ‘the premier opera house for Britten’ in this new production by Christopher Alden of Britten’s A midsummer night’s dream. Iestyn Davies sings the counter tenor role of Oberon created for Deller, Anna Christy is a sparkling Tytania, Graeme Danby is Snug and Willard White is in excellent form as Bottom. However, whether Bottom really needed a band called the Tops is just one more than dubious decision on view at the show we saw last night.

    4-a_midsummer_nights_dream_willard_white_anna_christy_credit_alastair_muir1.jpgThe opera opens with warping, downwardly skidding glissandi and a chorus of boys. Britten brilliantly used different themes, chords and instrumentation – including a harp and celeste for Oberon – to delineate the mortals from the fairies. The 1967 Deller recording conducted by Britten establishes a bright and magical mood. His fairies are wicked, but not evil. At ENO a sustained evocation of grimness and corruption drained the first two acts of almost any hint of enchantment. The cast all moved like sleep-walkers and their dreams were far from pleasant.

    In spite of the broodingly sinister treatment of the first half and the essay on paedophilia in the programme, Britten’s notorious pre-occupation with boys was chaste and connected with his own childlike psyche, not with corruption. In this production Oberon chain-smoked and chalked lessons in ‘amo, amas, amamus’ before leading his boy victim off to be initiated. The set was based on a photo of a Victorian board school, complete with a large sign over the central doorway advertising ‘BOYS’. Although Britten intended Theseus to be absent from the stage until the end, in Alden's interpretation he drifted about puzzlingly.

    But for my promise that the best was yet to come we would have left at the interval. The best music and set pieces are certainly in Act 3, which played to 55 minutes after 100 minutes before the interval. In the mechanicals’ Pyramus and Thisby, Britten skilfully parodies a Donizetti mad scene. At the Coliseum the set was transformed, the players flashed and fellated and the immortals looked on from their box. The lovers’ quartet, with its interweaving rising themes, was delightful. Thankfully forgotten was the adolescent coupling by the school bins we'd seen earlier. All musically was very well indeed – but as troubled Theseus hovered, Alden’s intention was evidently to spook us still. 

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  • Broken on the wheel?


    I have breaks but I'm not broken. This particular butterfly is re-emerging, almost nine months after a devastating cycling accident. I was knocked off by a hit-and-run driver, who left me unconscious in a ditch with a smashed face that took 12 hours of surgery to put right.

    Thanks to seven or so titanium implants and more screws than I want to count, the cracked bones are back in place. I didn’t get a new front tooth at Christmas, but an implant or bridge will eventually sort that. Weeks of physiotherapy have strengthened weak muscles and restored almost all normal movement. The aches and pains have almost all faded. I’ve been incredibly lucky. The medical team were fabulous, and so were so many friends, who buoyed me up and helped me through the most difficult time.

    For a good reason, perhaps, my mind was wiped clean of almost all memories of the accident and the first few days of my recovery. Now I've time to reflect on what happened and what it means for the rest of my life.

    My bike had lights and good reflectors and I remember that minutes before the accident I was cycling safely. So why did I choose to cycle down an unlit road late at night without the luminous clothing I normally wear? The answer is that being seen at night was the last thing in my head when I set off for Paris on a sunlit afternoon a few days earlier.

    Like most adult male cyclists, I wasn't in the habit of wearing a helmet either  – and this is my legal right. Fortunately I sustained no injuries to the part of my skull a helmet would have covered.

    I've always thought of myself as optimist, and someone who is by nature happy. Previously, long rides from Lake Garda to Venice, Florence to Sienna and the Hague to Bruges had all been without incident. Why should a 15 minute ride home be any different? This happy optimism turned out to be more than a little misplaced.

    Inevitably, research has shown those who are happy really do die younger, perhaps because of a more happy-go-lucky attitude to risk. In addition, one in five Britons and half of all other Europeans are thought to be infected by toxoplasmosis, an ingenious parasite that lodges permanently in our brains, modifying our behaviour so that we are more likely to do dangerous things that might be to the parasite's advantage.

    Read the press coverage of cycling behaviour and the emphasis is almost always on making cyclists ride safer (often with the implication that they are irresponsible), not on making motorists pay proper attention.

    My perception of the risks of cycling has changed dramatically, as it should perhaps in other areas of my life. Cycling always seemed the most innocent and carefree of activities. But the truth about cycling, as James Cracknell and several friends have found out recently, is quite different. One set of statistics claims the length of time one would have to travel to have a one in a million chance of being killed is:Whistler, butterfly

    By air – 4,300 hours; By car – 10 hours; By pedal cycle – 2 hours & 40 minutes

    So if you ride, ride as safely as you can manage. A helmet won't stop you getting killed, but it may prevent brain injuries. Be aware of the risks. And when you drive, always be on the look out for cyclists. Please.