First published in The Times, Friday August 28 2015
This strange, hypnotic show, performed by cellist and theatre practitioner Anna-Helena McLean, is not so much a compression of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a total immersion in the play’s themes and atmosphere, created principally through layers of sound. It may take a while to acclimatise to the unwaveringly abstract performance but, like Shakespeare’s queen of the fairies, McLean does cast an intoxicating spell over her audience.
One of the few overt references to the show’s source comes right at the outset, when McLean weaves among the audience, handing out flowers and naming her attendants: Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth and Mustard Seed. The music, which McLean creates live by layering multiple refrains, both sung and played on her cello, is accompanied by snatches of semi-comprehensible lyrics that add further texture to the soundscape. The bits of text that we do hear provide a charmingly idiomatic commentary on Titania’s relationship with her husband, Oberon (“She does love him but he doesn’t half breathe down her neck the whole time.”)
While McLean’s cello playing veers between sweetly melodic and harsh and discordant throughout, the sound that comes out of her mouth is genuinely otherworldly: a swooping, soaring verbalisation of pure emotion that uses every part of her vocal range.
The show is not for the faint-hearted: indeed, it is almost parodic in its self-indulgence, particularly in the initial stages. At times McLean appears so self-contained that you feel as though you are intruding on some private ritual. Yet there are also several opportunities for audience participation, including the joyous creation of a dawn chorus of woodland creatures that spreads through the whole room.
Like all great concept albums, McLean’s take on Shakespeare is unlikely to win over purists, but the subjectivity of her approach doesn’t mean that her work is inaccessible. On the contrary, this unique show reconstructs a classic with such flamboyant irreverence that it proves surprisingly seductive.