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A Midsummer Night's Dream at BlackCreek: crowd-pleaser minus the crowd

British actress Helen Mirren


Helen Mirren in her time has played many queens. Just in recent years they've included Elizabeth I in the television miniseries of the same name, Racine's Phèdre at London's National Theatre and, most famously, the current British monarch in The Queen, which won her the 2007 best actress Academy Award.

In Toronto on Wednesday night she added to her regal résumé, offering up a proud and fiery Titania, Queen of the Fairies, from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.

She was more than matched by her fairy-king Oberon, dripping with deviousness in the person of Jeremy Irons.

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The pair of Oscar-winning actors (he got his trophy for 1990's Reversal of Fortune) were at Toronto's York University to thrill a small but appreciative audience as part of a Shakespeare-themed classical concert at the inaugural Capital One BlackCreek Summer Music Festival.

And the two had a high old time of it, despite the alarmingly low turnout at the festival's outdoor venue, the 12,500-seat Rexall Centre, which also appears to be on one of the flight paths for nearby Pearson International Airport. The passing planes had no regard for the fact that a couple of famous thesps were reciting Shakespeare down below, or even that the esteemed U.S. maestro Lorin Maazel was on the podium. The artists took it in stride, however. Mirren, making her entrance to yet another noisy jet, simply smiled up at it and gave it a tiny, queen-like wave.

Then she and Irons got down to business, adding spoken excerpts and narration to a performance of Mendelssohn's incidental music to A Midsummer Night's Dream, performed by Maazel's Castleton Festival Orchestra.

Mirren, elegant in a white gown and gossamer shawl, and Irons, lean and grizzled in a long black coat, juggled a variety of roles. They took on not just fairy royalty, but the young Athenian lovers as well as the "rude mechanicals" whose amateur theatrics end the play. Mirren was in particularly fine form as a breathlessly love-struck Titania, swooning over the absurdly transformed Bottom. But it was the playful Irons who stole the show.

One minute he was a slow-witted, cockney Bottom, the next, a snickering, mischievous Puck. His cartoonish voices for the fairies had an amusing hint of Disney and his disdainful Theseus was an echo of his current TV role as Rodrigo Borgia, patriarch of the power-mad Renaissance family on The Borgias. By the time he enacted the hilarious death scenes of Pyramus and Thisby in the play-within-a-play, Mirren had pretty much ceded the stage to him.

Irons and Mirren, however, were just the marquee attractions here. The concert's real purpose was to showcase the musicians of Maazel's fledgling Castleton Festival, an annual gathering of young classical artists held on the maestro's vast Virginia estate. The orchestra opened the show with three selections from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet ballet followed by Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet fantasy-overture. Although the playing was spirited, it was a gloomy choice for an introduction, let alone a summer concert. The 81-year-old Maazel, looking characteristically severe, was obviously saving all the fun for later.

It was with Mendelssohn's richly decorated Dream suite, which furnished the concert's second half, that the musicians got a real workout. Complementing Irons and Mirren's passionate readings, sopranos Joyce El-Khoury and Tharanga Goonetilleke and Castleton's female chorus scaled ethereal peaks in the vocal passages, while the orchestra brought things back down to earth with a vibrantly majestic version of the imperishable Wedding March.

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But if the audience was left satisfied, the organizers of BlackCreek need to worry. If a couple of movie stars can't fill its mid-sized amphitheatre, how will the eclectic festival's other classical concerts fare? They include a performance by the Castleton Festival Opera on July 22 and three dates with Maazel and the London Symphony Orchestra at the end of August.

A Midsummer Night's Dream

  • Helen Mirren and Jeremy Irons
  • The Castleton Festival Orchestra
  • At the Rexall Centre
  • In Toronto on Wednesday

Special to The Globe and Mail

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