Does adding a framing locale to an already geographically restless play cause confusion? Not, I can only report, to my 10-year-old guest, who had no problem cottoning on to the production's sometimes witty, sometimes haunting shorthand, and who was engrossed and enchanted by the piece. Indeed, if I have an objection, it is that the strong appeal of this staging is more than a touch too childlike in its uncynical, exotic simplicity.
There is wonder, to be sure, in the material Shakespeare adapted in this story of Helena, a poor but resolute physician's daughter who claims the hand of her benefactor's snobbish son, as a reward for curing the king, pursues this reluctant prize to the Italian wars and only succeeds in holding him to account as a husband by dint of a bed trick. Intimations of the miraculous sit side by side in Shakespeare's play with a sophisticated scepticism about slotting psychologically complex people into neat happy endings. He adds the idea of a mock-death and resurrection for the heroine, but since this device gives the hero time and scope to demonstrate even more clearly his worthlessness as a catch, the joy at the conclusion can't be unqualified.
Doubt, however, casts a very short shadow over Brook's account of the play. Beautifully played by Rachel Pickup, Helena is at once a sensitive human being and an inspiring mythic force for good. Delicate other-worldly chimes sound at the mention of her powers. Staged in silhouette behind a screen, her cure of the king is presented as a spirit-banishing, arm- waving dance. The sordid side of the bed trick evaporates here in a lovely, interpolated, silent scene where, veiled as Diana, Helena leads her unwitting husband into this sexual tryst as if it were some initiation into the nobler mysteries rather than a one-night stand on false pretences. Emile Marwa's Bertram, more naive boy than peevish cad, looks as though he may well ripen under Helena's rays.
The last time OSC mounted a multi-cultural Shakespeare, with Alexandru Darie's 1992 Much Ado, it was an unholy hodge-podge: if, to the strains of a sitar, an Eskimo had wandered on shaking a shillelagh, you would not have been surprised. Here, by contrast, the wildly varying styles tend to capture and intensify the spirit of their particular strand - from the refreshing, earthy directness of the African Widow and Diana (Anni Domingo, Clara Onyemere) to Michael Greco's strutting, would-be Latin lover of a Parolles, who gabbles his treacheries at hilarious top speed. Well worth catching on its national tour, this is a production that winningly establishes its own kind of imaginative integrity. Oxford Playhouse to Sat (booking: 01865 798600), then touring nationally to 6 December Paul TaylorReuse content