Peter Hall’s magical production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream has delighted audiences since it debuted at Glyndebourne in 1981.
At night in the woods outside Athens, Oberon, King of the Fairies, argues with his queen Tytania over a young changeling boy; Oberon wants him for a henchman, but Tytania refuses to give him up. Oberon sends the sprite Puck to find a magical flower whose juice, sprinkled on Tytania’s eyelids, will cause her to fall in love with the first creature she sees upon waking. Oberon plans to steal the boy while Tytania is under the spell.
Lysander and his beloved Hermia have eloped to the forest from Athens, under whose law Hermia’s father can force her to marry Demetrius. Demetrius loves and pursues Hermia, while Helena, smitten with Demetrius, pursues him. But Demetrius rejects Helena in hopes of winning Hermia. Oberon has witnessed their quarrels and commands Puck to use the magic juice on Demetrius, too, so that he will fall in love with Helena.
Six craftsmen, or ‘mechanicals’, arrive in the forest to discuss a play they plan to perform at the wedding of Theseus, Duke of Athens, and Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. They squabble over casting, but finally Bottom, the weaver, and Flute, the bellows-mender, agree to play the title roles, Pyramus and Thisbe, respectively. Quince, the carpenter, who is the play’s author and director, distributes scripts, and all agree to meet later that day to rehearse.
Lysander and Hermia lie down to sleep. Puck mistakes Lysander for Demetrius and sprinkles the juice of the magic flower on Lysander’s eyes. Demetrius arrives with Helena in pursuit, but he spurns her. Helena sees Lysander and awakens him. Under the spell’s effect, Lysander is smitten and proclaims his love for Helena, who runs off, certain that he is mocking her. Hermia awakes from a nightmare to find herself alone.
Nearby, the fairies prepare their queen Tytania for sleep. Oberon slips in to sprinkle the magic juice on her eyes, trusting that she will ‘wake when some vile thing is near’.
Later in the day, the mechanicals meet to rehearse their play. Puck, observing them, decides to amuse himself by turning Bottom’s head into that of an ass. At the sight of this, the mechanicals flee in fear, much to Bottom’s confusion. Left alone, Bottom sings to keep his spirits up, which wakes Tytania, who falls instantly in love with Bottom. Aided by the fairies, she manages to seduce him.
Oberon is delighted to find Tytania in love with an ass. But when he sees Demetrius chasing Hermia, Oberon realises that Puck has made a mistake. When Demetrius falls asleep, Oberon sprinkles the magic juice on his eyes. Helena and Lysander arrive, waking Demetrius, who immediately falls in love with Helena. When Lysander rejects Hermia, Helena becomes convinced that her three companions are mocking her.
Furious at Puck, Oberon gives him an herbal antidote to dispense to Lysander. Puck then leads the lovers away through the forest. As they fall asleep, Puck applies the herb to Lysander’s eyes.
Shortly before sunrise, Oberon releases Tytania from the spell. The dawn awakens the four lovers, who are finally reconciled—Demetrius with Helena and Lysander with Hermia. Bottom, restored to completely human form, wakes from what he thinks was a strange dream. The other mechanicals have been searching for Bottom, and when they find him, he announces that their play has been chosen to be performed at court.
Back in Athens on Theseus’s and Hippolyta’s wedding day, the two couples lovers beg Theseus’s forgiveness for disobeying the law. Theseus pardons them, promising that they shall be married together with him and Hippolyta. The mechanicals finally perform their masterpiece, ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’. As the three mortal couples retire to bed, Oberon, Tytania, and the fairies bless the sleeping household, and Puck gets the last word.