Much better in translation

Yukio Ninagawa's flamboyant version of `A Midsummer Night's Dream' puts the homegrown variety in the shade

He turned Macbeth into an achingly beautiful ritual of loss, its eloquent mood underscored by the continuous fall of cherry blossom - a Japanese symbol of evanescence. He converted the whole of The Tempest into a play rehearsal superintended by a wilful Noh director, proving in the process that there's no business like Noh business. It's to A Midsummer Night's Dream that Yukio Ninagawa now brings his genius for a bewitching fusion of Eastern and Western styles and for bathing a stage in sumptuous, painterly light.

He sets the action in a Japanese stone garden composed of sand punctuated by rocks that look rather like anticipations in Modernist sculpture of the slumbering figures so many of the characters will become. Five illuminated ropes of sand spill softly down on to the stage, as though through invisible hourglasses. A programme note indicates that one of the connotations of this image is "the spider's web extended by Buddha from heaven to help people up"; on a more humble level, lines of sand also evoke the trees of the magic wood.

Renowned for juxtaposing markedly different theatrical styles, Ninagawa has gathered an eclectic company. It includes a hefty Sumo wrestler, Ofuji, who is wittily cast against type as the usually wimpish lion-playing Snug; a transfixing Kabuki actress, Kayoko Shiraishi, as Titania; and, best of all, Yung-biau Lin, an acrobat from the Chinese opera, as Puck. Carrying more than a hint of Pierrot about him and wearing a serenely irresponsible grin, this Puck pops up and down like a Jack-in-a-box, and with bewildering speed, through trapdoors all over the stage.

With a wondrous lightness and stealth, he somersaults through the air, which is a ravishing cross-hatch of blue and green light, performs bravura backward flips and creates droll havoc, as in the very funny slow-motion sequence when the horrified mechanicals first see Bottom with his ass's head. Puck's words are delivered from the side of the stage by Yoji Matsuda, who by a convention that seems to take discretion to bizarre lengths, wears a black veil over his face, even though he is invisible to most of the audience. What would he wear, I wondered, for the curtain call; two black veils?

Like the fairies they lead, Tetsuro Sagawa's Oberon and Kayoko Shiraishi's Titania are crowned with flowers and cascades of black ribbon, headgear that brings to mind window-boxes and morris men. The Japanese language is not one in which lyricism gets much of a look-in; indeed, there are times when this superbly compelling, superannuated tease of a Titania sounds, with her shrieks and groanings, like a cement-mixer having an orgasm. But for lovers' rows and harangues, of which there are not a few in the Dream, it is unsurpassed.

Goro Daimon's laudable Bottom is first seen stir-frying noodles for the rest of the mechanicals who arrive on bikes to the sound of city traffic. As in Sotobot Komachi, Ninagawa's brilliant staging of a Noh play by Mishima, traffic noise is used at the end to indicate the call back to the real world from the timeless mythic realm into which the play has journeyed. It's only with supreme reluctance, though, that you consent to come round from this Dream.

n To 14 Sept, Mermaid, London, EC4. Booking: 0171-236 2211

PAUL TAYLOR

The announcement that the costumes had got held up on the way from Brazil to London might not have been the best advertisement for BA, but it sounded like a veritable gifte for the new Globe. Northern Broadsides, the company famed for its no-nonsense, plain-speaking approach, had stopped off for the night at the ideal home for its globe-trotting production: Sam Wanamaker's dream-turned-reality. Here was the chance to show that with nowt but two pillars and some mock-Elizabethan bonhomie, the play could be the thing.

The shared joke was, inevitably, that Puck doesn't have a hope in hell of depositing the love-in-idleness flower on the right lover, instructed as he is to look for someone in "Athenian garments". At every successive mention of this, the cast corpsed and the crowd tittered. When the costumes did materialise, in time for the second half, they received a round of applause. Quite why was mystifying: laying aside Titania's nasty spangly yellow shawl and the courtiers' orange waistcoats (and someone should have), it was clear from the outset that demeanour alone was not going to distinguish the characters.

As Theseus and Hippolyta, Barrie Rutter and Ishia Bennison thrust their pelvises at each other in exaggerated lust; as Oberon and Titania, they wrangled with exaggerated childishness. Helena and Hermia showed themselves as tough as old boots when confronted by sudden reversals of male affection (the latter even rugby-tackled Lysander). As for the fairies, "I serve the fairy queen" sounded like a gruff invitation to fight rather than a statement of fact. The ensemble galloped up blank verse and down rhyming couplet with a collective fervour. This meant that the "rude mechanicals", preparing their It Ain't Half Hot Mum-style masque for the court, slotted neatly into the scene. Only Conrad Nelson's Puck was left high and dry, judge-sober in the midst of all the rough and tumble.

This indistinction seemed like a strategy, at least initially: a way of connecting with the crowd panto-style. Peter Gunn's paunchy Bottom had an exuberance that earned him a collective "aahh" when he got translated into an ass (well, when his head was hijacked by a floppy-eared tea-cosy). Bill Rodgers's large, butty-munching but highly sensitive Snug the joiner was another cutey. But for the lovers to make up after their partner-swapping humiliations to similar cooing noises suggested that something had gone awry. There was little sense that a boundary between one world and another had been crossed. Even Bottom, waking from his dream, seemed to have a contemplation-bypass. Perhaps it was the Globe's harsh overhead lights. Perhaps the cast was jet-lagged. But somewhere along the line, the magic just vanished into airy nothing.

DOMINIC CAVENDISH

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