The dream that died

THEATRE: A Midsummer Night's Dream; Almeida, London
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The Independent Culture
"What, if anything, does a fairy look like?" asks Jonathan Miller in the programme to his new production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Well, as Eric Morecambe would have said, "There's no answer to that". Or rather, an infinite range of answers. Since, to quote Peter Brook, "on the immediate level `fairy' suggests nothing to the modern mind", gauzy gestures to folklore and rural superstition are out. Contemporary directors are, therefore, free to make Shakespeare's fairies everything from eerily punked-up St Trinian's schoolgirls to supernatural Securitate agents in a Romania-mirroring surveillance state.

Before now, though, the otherworldliness of these creatures has been respected. Except for the unnatural pallor with which they've been equipped, this is not the case in Miller's production, set in a sort of Mitford Girls 1930s, where visually the distinction between the fairy realm and the drawling toff world of country house and park has been erased. When Jason Watkins's Cockney-accented, tailcoated flunky of a Puck says "Up and down, up and down, / I will lead them up and down", it's in the "a woman's work is never done" tones of a disaffected servant forced to labour up and down stairs. You'd never guess that this was a globe-trotting sprite cocky with his capacity for magical pranks. There's even a defensive insecure bravado here in his claim that "I am fear'd in field and town". He and his lookalike coevals seem to be jumped-up working-class snobs who can only very reluctantly bring themselves to consort with the likes of Peter Baylis's rough-hewn Bottom when he is doted on by Angela Thorne's imperiously cut-glass, evening-gowned Titania.

That's typical of the joylessness that pervades this production. In the dubious interests of suggesting that all the creaturely levels in the Dream are social mirrors of each other, it manages to make virtually everyone (from the snooty, braying lovers to the snide fairy underlings) unsympathetic and to turn the play into the most thuddingly prosaic gloss on the English class system you've ever witnessed.

"There is no need for enchanting marvels and special effects," Miller argues in the programme. Perhaps not, but a Dream without any poetic magic whatsoever is like an Esther Williams movie without water. The Quay Brothers' design, which attempts to re-create the wood as a maze of cloudy, glassed- in partitions, is more muddle than mystery, enclosing over half the stage in what looks like musty museum cabinets, reducing room for manoeuvre and offering no clear rationale for when the lovers are supposed to be in the maze or out in the open area downstage.

There are two compensations. As Lysander, Angus Wright manages a beautiful switch from ganglingly bashful upper-class chump to (courtesy of the magic juice) a Don Giovanni-humming smoothie. And in the play-within-the-play, Toby Jones's "Thisbe" gets so hilariously into this heroine's drawn-out seppuku-like suicide (eat your heart out, Yukio Mishima) that he doesn't notice the show has ended and everyone else is being congratulated by the audience.

But Miller's production, as a whole, is a pointless denial of the Dream's poetry (it's characteristic that, when delivering the line "I know a bank where the wild thyme blows", Norman Rodway's Oberon punctuates it with a smoker's cough). It also rationalises the fairies out of all but utilitarian existence. The evening feels like the work of someone who, when he was a child watching Peter Pan, would have allowed Tinkerbell to die, rather than clap his hands. To 1 Feb. Booking: 0171-359 4404 Paul Taylor