THEATRE / The watered-down version: Robert Lepage's new National Theatre production of A Midsummer Night's Dream brings Shakespeare down to earth - it's set in a swamp. Sarah Hemming reports

'Mega-splash coming up]' warns one of the stage-crew for A Midsummer Night's Dream. The cast and crew make hastily for the sides of the rehearsal room, as Oberon lashes out in a sudden rage at Puck, thrashing his cloak about him and sending out great sprays of black muddy water around the room.

The National Theatre's new production of Shakespeare's summer comedy is performed in a swamp. This is perhaps not so surprising when you learn that the director is the French-Canadian Robert Lepage. Of his recent productions, the Dragons' Trilogy was performed on a bed of sand; Tectonic Plates was performed partly on water, and in Needles and Opium, Lepage himself spun dizzyingly over the stage in a harness.

The Dream is a new departure though - this time Lepage is working with British actors on a Shakespeare text, rather than shaping the text through rehearsal. And as Lepage's magical use of simple imagery has led to his name being linked with that of Peter Brook, whose ground-breaking production of A Midsummer Night's Dream was staged in 1971, the new production has attracted much curiosity. But where Brook's production was airy and trapeze-borne, Lepage's is earthy and wet, performed solely in a huge puddle of water circled by oozing, black mud, into which the actors frequently fling themselves.

This watery setting lends a strange air of calm to the rehearsal room in the National Theatre. Technicians splosh back and forth, clad in boots or plastic leggings; every movement is accompanied by a satisfying sloosh. A vase of delicate flowers sits on the director's table, in odd contrast to the wet and mud-spattered letters and faxes.

Lepage himself, a solid and quiet presence in black wellingtons, trudges in and out of the swamp to give notes. He appears good-humoured and relaxed. He never raises his voice, but watches as people try things, smiling when they go right, wading over to suggest scarcely audible alternatives when they don't. His gentle manner seems at odds with the startling images he creates.

'I think he wanted to use the mud because the play is about people finding out things about themselves, reaching their basest level,' says Simon Coates, who plays Demetrius, one of the hapless lovers. 'The dirtiness of the mud is symbolic of that.' He soaks his mud-caked feet in a tin bath of warm water.

As the lost lovers become entangled in their nightmarish dream, pursuing each other and grappling with their desires, they become covered in the primordial slime. Since they are clad in plain white underclothes, this lends them a pathetic, bedraggled air. 'It earths you,' adds Coates. 'It really helps you as you start to get dirty. You get to feel the vulnerability of the lovers. You're wet, you're dirty, you're in a strange environment where you don't know what's happening to you. You really feel helpless.'

Whereas the lovers stumble awkwardly around this threatening, dank world, the fairies - lithe, reptilian creatures - revel in it. And as Angela Laurier, who plays Puck, points out, the mud is just one aspect of a production that pays great attention to movement.

'At the beginning, moving in the mud was very scary,' says Laurier. 'But you find it's a help. The mud is slippery and you have to be careful and concentrate. And that gives you something very strong. On an ordinary floor, you don't even realise you're moving, but in this mud you become very aware of your movements.'

An extraordinarily pliant, gamine-faced contortionist, Laurier was spotted by Lepage performing in a cabaret in Montreal. After a lifetime of acrobatics, circus-acts and dance, she was ready to try something new. 'Circus is very limited - it's just physical. My technique is already assured. In contortion work you often keep a pose for five minutes or so - and I can speak in that position. The rhythm and speeches are fantastic with movement: Puck's speeches are very physical. Robert allows you time, he leaves you free to find things by yourself. He lets you try things - and even if it's not good, you have to try it.'

Laurier seems prepared to try anything. As she takes a perilous dive from the top corner of a large upturned bed - suspended only by Oberon holding a strap of her costume - Lepage watches, troubled. He wades over.

'This image here is not efficient,' he says, quietly. 'Because where she is dangling, only two- thirds of the Olivier will see it. It would be much better if she could jump off the front.'

Laurier tries it from the front of the bed. But Oberon cannot get a good purchase on her from this angle and she plunges horribly fast towards the ground. 'Ah] Bungy- jumping]' says Lepage, wiping away the flecks of mud from his eye.

'I would like to go on living, if possible,' mutters Laurier, genially, as she dangles upside- down, head a fraction above the swamp. Lepage gently flicks a strand of mud-caked hair out of her eye for her and she clambers back to the top to try all over again.

As well as playing Puck, Laurier has spent the last two months coaching the fairies in acrobatics and movement. They are now impressively proficient in backflips, somersaults, handstands and cartwheels - although the mud dictates that for the most part they use only the physical alertness this training produces, since backflips could be lethal. Yet none of the fairies were trained dancers or gymnasts, and in fact some performers with just such experience were turned down at audition. 'I think Robert chooses actors largely according to their personality,' says Laurier. 'For him the team is very important, and the potential of the performers.'

As one secret of Lepage's productions seems to be to keep a rein on the actors but still allow them room for manoeuvre, the cast have found that their potential is often drawn upon. 'He'll just ask you to do things,' says Paul Meston, one of the fairies. 'He'll say 'Could you go up that rope?', whereas a lot of English directors would say 'We were wondering if you wouldn't mind climbing a rope'. It's just the way Robert has of saying it - you just do it.'

And they have found Lepage's tactile and daring approach refreshing. 'Usually you do a read- through, then you're blocking the production and discussing the text,' says Sarah D'Arcy, who plays Cobweb. 'There's lots of talking going on. His concern is not beautifully spoken verse. He does approach it very differently. The physical world of the play is very important.'

'He expects an awful lot from the actors,' adds Alison Reid, who plays Peaseblossom. 'And I think that's a good thing.'

'A Midsummer Night's Dream' opens at the Olivier, National Theatre, London SE1 on 9 July (previews from 3 July). Box office: 071- 928 2252.

An 'Omnibus' profile of Robert Lepage will be broadcast on 16 October, BBC2.

(Photographs omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

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

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power