THEATRE / A strange case of swamp fever

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The Independent Culture
AS IT WAS I who first lumbered Robert Lepage with a comparison to Peter Brook which has been clanking along behind him ever since, I am glad to have the chance of striking off this ball and chain. Until now, English audiences have known Lepage by his original work; but with his production of A Midsummer Night's Dream he moves into Brook's home territory - and any comparison between the two directors breaks down.

Word has spread through the kingdom that this show takes place in a muddy pool. And why not? Every director of the Dream has to begin by reinventing fairyland; and Michael Levine's unprepossessing puddle yields some magical imagery once Lepage and his lighting designer (Jean Kalman) get to work on it. Figures in that watery diorama are extended both as reflections in the pool and as liquid shadows on the back wall - so that you simultaneously witness action and its dream-like evocation. Rippling gamelan music echoes the visual rhythms, and the one property - an iron bedstead - is endlessly transformed into doors, acrobatic frames, a duelling ground, Titania's bower and an acting booth.

The acting convention is that the immortals are at home in the primeval slime and the humans are not. So the slithering, belly-flopping lovers are matched against a pack of reptilian sprites whose amphibious agility finds its supreme exponent in Angela Laurier's Puck: a dazzling dancer-contortionist who puts a girdle round the earth in a prolonged high-wire spin, moves like a crab by reversing the function of hands and feet, and whose rubbery musculature disorients all your expectations of the human body. She also delivers the text with gleeful bite.

This is more than can be said for other members of the company. Timothy Spall does an effective hatchet job on Bottom as a Brando-smitten narcissist; and Sally Dexter's Titania scores equally in sulphurous defiance and enchanted lust. As for the rest - including such names as Rudi Davies and Rupert Graves - it is often hard to hear their lines, much less discern any individual character.

It may be unfair to judge a show against its creator's intentions. But one cannot ignore the gap between Lepage's advance descriptions and their physical manifestation. This set does not transmit a metaphor of self-discovery, or the darkness of adolescent sexuality, or some Jungian archetype. It transmits the idea of mess and dirt, an environment that must be hell for the actors and works havoc with their movement and comic timing; and makes no contact whatever with the palace scenes. It produces some unexpected laughs. 'Here's a marvellous convenient place for our rehearsal,' announces the triumphant Quince (Steven Beard), arriving in a mosquito-infested swamp. Very funny; but it is a joke against the text. Shakespeare's jokes are submerged under the splashing games. This is a pictorially spell-binding show with one unforgettably unearthly performance; but if you want to see the Dream let me recommend Ian Talbot's excellent version in Regent's Park.

'This deed I'll do, before this purpose cool,' declares Michael Pennington from inside the industrial jacuzzi that serves as a cauldron in Michael Bogdanov's English Shakespeare Company production of Macbeth. The Macduff family are duly done away with; but another moment's royal reflection, it seems, and they might have carried on eating their breakfast porridge undisturbed. Pennington's Macbeth is a Scottish cousin of Hamlet. Like the Dane, the thane is continually psyching himself up to some dread exploit and then collapsing into irresolution. But for his wife, nothing would have got done; for that reason Jenny Quayle remains the steel-willed driving force long past the point where other Lady Macbeths have fallen apart. Sometimes it is all too easy to share her impatience with him, as his emotional pendulum swings back yet again from manly resolve to the pathetic vox humana: even so, theirs is a powerful and well-designed partnership.

The rest of the show is in Bodganov's anachronistic military vein, with the witches doubling as battlefield looters and bag ladies, and the whole action dominated by a revolving steel ladder which permits surprise flying entries, and the shock return of Banquo's ghost (Colin Farrell) enthroned above the banquet. If its purpose is also to drive home some message on the evil of state-sanctioned violence (as argued in the programme), it is as ineffectual as Lepage's mudbath. Some normally excellent actors give dull performances in the supporting roles.

After the clobbering Melvyn Bragg received for A Time to Dance I had hoped to enjoy his next dramatic venture; but, alas for sportsmanship, King Lear in New York is a stinker. Assembled from such rusty old equipment as the phone exposition, the interrupted sex scene and the alcoholic confession, it tells the tale of a lapsed star's off-off-Broadway return to Bardic glory. Will John Stride's booming Robert manage to haul himself on stage, despite the booze, loss of memory and the concerted attempt of two wives and a drug-addict daughter to thwart his come- back? Any interest this question might excite is squelched by Bragg's habit of setting up some artificial suspense and then expecting you to attend to prolonged speeches as the vital minutes tick away, supervised by an evil TV journalist (Kate O'Mara), whose lines suggest a paste-up from Bonfire of the Vanities.

Bragg also challenges comparison with Ronald Harwood's The Dresser by attempting a parallel between his and Shakespeare's hero. 'Poor naked wretches,' Robert thunders to a companion (who calls him 'Nuncle') observing pedestrians caught in a rainstorm as torrential as the play's cliches. That is about as far as it goes. Patrick Garland directs a glitzy production; but on this occasion robes and furred gowns do not hide all.

As the characters arrive through the revolving door of Tony Walton's set for Grand Hotel - bankrupt Baron, ageing ballerina, typist with stars in her eyes - you settle in for another night of stereotypes; then, as the plot engages, showing a group of brightly-lit creatures frenziedly seeking to change their lives on the brink of the Depression, humanity amazingly takes over. Luther Davis's adaptation of Vicki Baum's Menschen im Hotel is as deftly scripted as anything by Schnitzler; but its real distinction is the integration of book, song, and dance. The dying bookkeeper (Barry James) appears a hopeless case until he starts singing; then you understand that he still has a sound heart in his wrecked body. A scene where a jewel thief turns into a lover could only achieve that reversal through music: music, moreover (by Robert Wright and George Forrest) that forestalls sentimentality by touching on the whole sexual spectrum from romance to coercive squalor. Such performances as Lynnette Perry's Flammchen and Brent Barrett's Baron - both stunning dancers - create a sense of innocent glamour at the moment before its extinction. Their foxtrots and Charlestons also obliterate the usual exclusivity of showbiz dance; when they pull the wheezing Otto on to the dance floor, you are made to feel this is one of the basic pleasures of the human race. Tommy Tune makes his British directorial debut with a masterpiece.

'A Midsummer Night's Dream', Olivier (071-928 2252). 'Macbeth', Richmond (081-940 0088). 'King Lear in New York', Chichester (0243-781312). 'Grand Hotel', Dominion (071-580 9562).

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