26th May 2000 at 01:00
Christina Zaba watches students of the West Country's only music theatre course get their act together.

Dreamtime. Tobacco Factory, Bristol.

Long ago, people were afraid of the land of faerie. In the days when forests covered much of England, and the high road was no more than a muddy track through the trees, you respected the secret and mysterious life of the glades and groves, tipped your hat to the ancient nature spirits which could strike your child dead or bring disaster to your crops. Tales survive from medieval England of faerie beings who are tall, noble, and chillingly inhuman: shape-shifters, maliciously tricksy, haunting the night with flickering lights, strange music and maniacally wild hunts through the sky. If you were stupid enough to fall asleep alone under the wrong sort of tree, the King of Faerie himself might carry you off to his mysterious Otherworld. Dancing in a mirror world between wild nature and civilised humanity, the faeries were never what they seemed.

Like other Elizabethan boys of his class, Shakespeare had been to grammar school. We don't know if he believed in faeries but he knew the old tales. and it's this world that he conjures up in A Midsummer Night's Dream. It's the world of the wildwood, haunted by weirdly refracted representations of humans who are yet not humans, who love and don't love, whose quarrels disturb nature itself, and whose pranks mislead and transform the men and women wandering in the night outside Athens.

They have only themselves to blame for what happens. Surrender to the magic of the midsummer wood, and you step into a dream that teaches you things about yourself you might not want to know.

But we're a long way from faerie these days; although Shakespeare's language is spellbinding, the spirits of his wood haunt us no longer. So how, in this age of convince-me-then scepticism, do you ensure that his Otherworld remains magical and impressive, and makes itself understood to audiences?

There are ways. Take, for example, a converted factory, full of pipes and pillars and echoing, dark, dusty spaces; dress it in silver and serpents, mirrors and spheres, the twisted metal of industrial bric-a-brac; fill it with mist, and shapes moving on the periphery of vision. Turn your Athenian lovers into airheads with mobile phones; give your mechanicals the space to be comic workmates in overalls.

And then haunt them. Fairies without faces, fairies with strange colours, lumps and bumps and manic movements. Let them gather from floor, from ceiling, from behind pillars. Puck can have yellow eyes and a Harry Potter lightning streak across his chest as he swings down from the old ppes, beguiling you with naked charm, dizzying you with athletic movement. Oberon, supreme king, can be clothed in flame but as cold as ice; his queen can be a weird insect, a gorgeous butterfly. Have the fairy legions creep and slide, hiss and warble, whistle and purr. Put them in the dark, in moving flecks of light; put them within touching distance of their audience. Make them very young. Above all, have them sing.

It's the singing that makes the difference. Because these are not just young actors but trained singers too, and their lines are from Benjamin Britten's opera A Midsummer Night's Dream, cunningly interwoven into the play to create a drama with a wholly new pace and substance. The result, Dreamtime, devised by the international tenor and Wagner specialist Kim Begley, was premi red this month by Higher National Diploma music theatre students in the newest theatre space in Bristol, the recently converted Tobacco Factory.

Bristol's HND music theatre course is the only one in the West Country to offer practical as well as academic preparation for professional music theatre. Jointly run by the Centre for Voice and Filton college, both in Bristol, and still in its first year, it's a performance-based, vocational course, taught by people with hands-on experience, some - like Kim Begley - taking time out of busy schedules. Dreamtime was created in a series of workshops; rehearsals began two weeks before the production, with the cast working 12 or more hours a day in an intensive period similar in its demands to professional work. It's a demanding piece; but it's also an attractive, richly textured way into Shakespeare and opera for new audiences, including schoolchildren.

And it isn't over yet. In July the production will go to Hanover for Expo 2000, the biggest trade and cultural event of the year; and staff and students from the Centre for Voice are also going to be conducting drama and music sessions with selected Bristol city schools during the summer, with the support of the Barton Hill Community Project, to culminate in a series of workshops and performances at the end of August involving more than 100 primary and secondary pupils. For the school participants, it'll be exciting, new and fun; for the HND students it'll be a consolidation of learning and practice. Either way, Puck and his fellows will be weaving their magic in unexpected ways. If seeing is believing, Shakespeare's ancient, enchanted wood is alive and well.

For further information about the HND music theatre course or the summer workshops for schools, contact the Centre for Voice, Bristol,. Tel: 0117 955 7055. E-mail: info@centreforvoice.idps.co.uk

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