opera The Fairy Queen Crass? Vulgar? Magic! Nick Kimberley on ENO's dream production of Purcell

The Purcell tercentenary celebrations have subjected the composer's stage works to all kinds of treatment, but nothing so crass and vulgar as David Pountney's new English National Opera staging of The Fairy Queen. Well, no one ever accused Pountney of subtlety, but the fact that the show is wonderful suggests that Purcell is big enough to withstand, perhaps even demand, rough handling and nothing that we see sins against the spirit of the piece, which has its own delightful crassness and vulgarity.

The Fairy Queen was written as a sequence of masques to be inserted into a performance of a bowdlerised text of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and estimates of how long a complete performance would run vary between four and six hours. That's rather longer than we feel comfortable with these days, nor would we take too well to hearing what was done to Shakespeare's text back in 1692. Yet a performance within the original play is not quite right either.

Something has to be done if The Fairy Queen is to have a stage-life and Pountney does it. All of it. Just as Purcell's masques sometimes relate to Shakespeare, at other times go their own merry way, so Pountney devises a story for the masques to tell, a story blending Shakespeare, Purcell and Pountney in unequal measure. Men dress up as women, poets get drunk and try to take over the conductor's podium and - you're not going to believe this - the fairy queen herself falls in love with a donkey. With a seething mass of non-singing supplementals, choreographed by Quinny Sacks, the eye is never sure what to watch, but Pountney's showmanship ensures that, wherever we look, there is something worth seeing.

Titania (Yvonne Kenny) and Oberon (Thomas Randle) argue over the Indian Boy (the dancer Arthur Pita) while all around them all kinds of amorous mayhem break out. Jonathan Best's Drunken Poet, a masterpiece of exact comic observation, is not too far gone to attract Michael Chance's Dick; Janet and John get it on; and only Richard Van Allan's Theseus, a "curmudgeon" bearing a marked resemblance to Michael Tippett, seems unwilling to join in the fun.

It's all a long way from authentic baroquerie, yet the spectacle's sheer exuberance might not have gone amiss at the Dorset Garden Theatre 300- odd years ago. Robert Israel's sets and Dunya Ramicova's Carry On Camping costumes play their part and Quinny Sacks's choreography keeps the comic heart pumping. None of it would work if the performers were anything less than completely committed.

The cast list runs to a page-and-a-half in the programme and there wasn't a dull performance to be seen: Pountney is a dab hand at rallying huge numbers. Not all the singing was as crisp as modern Purcellian practice demands and Nicholas Kok's conducting sometimes allowed the rhythms to slacken, but all of that will improve as the run progresses. Just when Purcell was in danger of being embalmed as National Heritage, this riotous production comes to rescue him from that fate far worse than death.

In repertoire to 23 Nov at ENO, London Coliseum, WC2. Booking: 0171- 632 8300

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own