The Tempest, Pyramus & Thisbe @ National Centre for Early Music, York, 2015Opera, Ballet & Musicals

  • SarahOlive

Restoration era incidental music to The TempestPyramus & ThisbeOpera Restor’d/Hand Made Opera, York International Shakespeare Festival, Musical dir. Peter Holman, National Centre for Early Music, York, 10 May 2015

Reviewed by Sarah Olive (University of York)


This Sunday afternoon concert, held in the converted church that houses the National Centre for Early Music (and had been my polling station a mere 36 hours earlier), drew in a crowd of classical music lovers who may otherwise have had little engagement with the festival. They had found out about the event primarily through the NCEM programme and York’s classical music scene, rather than the Theatre Royal or university.

The first half of the concert saw Peter Holman at the keyboard, directing violinists Guy Button, Oakki Lau, violist Ellisa Bogdanova (a surname which would grace any Shakespearean production), and Henrik Persson on ‘cello through incidental music from several restoration revivals of Tempest. Henry Purcell, John Banister, Matthew Locke and John Weldon all featured. The pieces were offered in order of the acts they belonged to and interspersed with short readings, by periwigged actors, of speeches by Ferdinand, Miranda and Prospero. Ariel, as may be expected, was well represented with songs such as ‘Come unto these yellow sands’, ‘Full fathom five’ and ‘Where the bee sucks’. However, there were appearances to surprise today’s theatre-goers, with characters added to the play during the restoration, such as Dorinda (Prospero’s youngest daughter). Caliban gained a sister but seemed to have lost/been denied a (singing) voice. Peter Holman was a fantastically informative musical director, giving snatches of commentary between pieces. From these I gleaned that the versions of the Tempest with the scoring we were listening to were performed well into the 1840s; that there is another ‘authorship’ debate between those who believe Purcell set the Tempest, and the majority today who attribute it to John Weldon; and that Samuel Pepys was smitten with Ferdinand and Ariel’s duet ‘Go thy way’. This part of the concert was a fabulous opportunity to close your eyes and time travel to a restoration London production of the play.

The second half required concert-goers to keep their eyes wide open, not least lest they be caught unawares by Colin Baldy’s mischievous lion. For Frederick Lampe’s Pyramus and Thisbe, the musicians were joined by eight excellent singers in a comic reworking of Ovid’s source material informed by Shakespeare’s mechanicals from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Richard Leveridge’s comic masquers. In Lampe’s treatment, partly satirising his early mentor, and fellow Saxon, Handel’s music, a group of English opera singers rehearse Pyramus and Thisbe in front of its ‘composer’, Mr Semibrief, and his foppish friends. The aesthetic and tone here was a complete about-face from the first half and the previous night’s festival offering, the Asta Nielsen Hamlet, being deliberately and appropriately camp, farcical and over-the-top. Mark Chaundy’s wall was complete with flower pots, spade and cat; David Heathcote’s Pyramus a little Bo-Peep; and Jane Streeton’s Thisbe a lusty would-be lover, with last-night-of-the-Proms-style Union Jack bow-ties studding her bodice. This revival of Lampe’s work demonstrated particularly well its entanglement within a rich web of English musical comedy – pantomime, musical hall, Gilbert and Sullivan, Morecambe and Wise – where linear chronologies of inspired-by and inspiring were not always easily discerned. This half of the concert certainly, enjoyably stretched me as a Shakespearean audience member in terms of challenging me to accept a whole set of mannerisms and conventions now specific to operatic, rather than theatre, staging. It may be heresy to say so, but these mechanicals drew more belly laughs than theatre productions of this play within a play that I have seen. It out-sillied Shakespeare spectacularly – a fitting scenario for a festival in the city that is home to Berwick Kaler, the nation’s pre-eminent pantomime dame.

Author: SarahOlive

Sarah Olive is a Senior Lecturer in English in Education at the University of York. She also supervises MA students at the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham, having previously led the Shakespeare and Pedagogy module there. Her research interests include Shakespeare’s afterlives, particularly in popular culture and education. Follow her on Twitter @DrSarahOlive.