Theatre: A Midsummer Night's Dream Lyric, Hammersmith The Tempest Richmond Theatre

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The Independent Culture
Dispatched to Los Angeles a few years back to report on Mark Two of an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, I realised, on arriving, that I'd forgotten to do anything about getting a visa. Not unreasonably, an official demanded to know the reason for my visit. "I'm a journalist from The Independent newspaper in London and I've come to see Sunset Boulevard," I explained. His face treated me to the kind of we've-got-a-right-one-here look that you might get at Heathrow if you claimed to be on a mission from the LA Times to go and view the Tottenham Court Road. He thought I meant Sunset Boulevard, which was heartening in a way as it suggested that the planet still contained the odd individual whose consciousness Lloyd Webber had yet to permeate. "Sounds like a fascinating newspaper you work for," the official commented dryly.

I was reminded of this incident, while reading, on these pages the other day, Michael Cashman's diary of the tour Shared Experience made in the east with Nancy Meckler's production of The Tempest. At the El-Al check- in in Israel, an interrogator looked at Cashman's passport and remarked, "Japan, Korea and now Israel - are you that good or are they just desperate?". A great line and one that, if repeated daily, would check any tendency towards self-congratulation in those who take classic western theatre to the parts it infrequently reaches.

To judge from Jatinder Verna's pre-rehearsal log printed in the programme to the Tara Arts/ Lyric Hammersmith co-production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, complacency is the last thing its director suffered from while planning the staging. But the finished product has a smug feel to it, perhaps a defensive one because there's certainly precious little on offer here for Tara to be smug about. Instead of enhancing the magic of the piece, as it well might have done, the multi-culturalism of the approach contributes to the unfocused mess.

By contrast, Shared Experience's The Tempest - lucid, intelligent, if not as theatrically inventive as some of the company's earlier work - uses its mixed-race cast in thought-provoking ways. It is Ade Sapara's Prince Ferdinand who is black, not Caliban. This may cause some initial confusion because the production, in keeping with its view that Prospero decides to leave the island only when he realises that he can't keep his daughter a child forever, begins with an interpolated episode where we see Miranda in a giggly piggy-back game with a young man which turns into something incipiently - and, it seems, consensually - sexual.

Who is this male with whom she dallies until Michael Cashman's Prospero angrily sticks his oar, or more precisely his staff, in? He's played by the actor Richard Willis who would be good conventional casting for Ferdinand. People who know the play well may therefore feel that this is an anxious flash-forward in Prospero's mind to the time when he will be torn between wanting to make a match for his child and wanting to cling to the idea of her as a virgin. It turns out, in fact, to be a flashback and one that is intent on readjusting our view of Caliban by showing that the slave's overtures to his master's daughter were neither insensitive nor unwelcome.

It's the one bit of the production where you feel that the desire to spell out a theme has muddied the clarity of the storytelling. Unlike Verna's production of the Dream - with its pointless choppings and rearranging of the text, its jumbled borrowings from the likes of Brook and Lepage, and its muddled visual and verbal ecleticism - Meckler's Tempest has at least something fresh to say about the play. It makes haunting use, too, of the image of white sails that are moved about the stage as screens for hiding behind, or as spooky cinematic "wipes", or to suggest the terrifying flapping wings of Rachel Sanders' excellent Ariel when she appears as a harpy. When this spirit is finally liberated, she has to struggle out of a straitjacket and, most movingly, is left not knowing what to do with the weird phenomena of free arms.

`A Midsummer Night's Dream', to 1 Mar (0181-741 8701); `The Tempest', to 1 Feb then touring (0181-940 0088)