<preform>A Dream Play, NT Cottesloe, London</br>The Winter's Tale, Watermill, Newbury</br>Colder Than Here, Soho, London</preform>

In dreams, your teddy is a killer
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The Independent Culture

Dreams within dreams dominated last week, with a whirl of bereavements and guilty regrets concerning lost mothers, children and lovers - eventually moving towards hopes of reconciliation. At the National, it was as though someone had read A Dream Play then fallen asleep, dreaming up their own vision with Strindberg's bizarre, fragmentary vignettes still floating around in their mind. The resulting production - co-created by Katie Mitchell and her cast, using and adding to Caryl Churchill's new version of the text - is highly inventive.

Dreams within dreams dominated last week, with a whirl of bereavements and guilty regrets concerning lost mothers, children and lovers - eventually moving towards hopes of reconciliation. At the National, it was as though someone had read A Dream Play then fallen asleep, dreaming up their own vision with Strindberg's bizarre, fragmentary vignettes still floating around in their mind. The resulting production - co-created by Katie Mitchell and her cast, using and adding to Caryl Churchill's new version of the text - is highly inventive.

This revision, thankfully, drops Strindberg's pseudo-Buddhist prologue where Indra's daughter descends from heaven to witness mankind's woes. Hints about angelic visitors remain in the dialogue, but here we begin in a 1950's office: a high, grey chamber where smart-suited men sit at dimly lit, identical desks, and secretaries skim to and fro in uniform silvery frocks. It is elegant yet funereal and, like dreams, paradoxically serene and fraught. The men sporadically babble into their telephones, under a clatter of typewriters and ticking clocks.

When everybody else has vanished for the night, Angus Wright's gaunt, lonely Alfred (the character called "The Officer" in other translations) is left behind. He slumps - asleep or dead? - over his work, when he was supposed to be taking his wife to the opera. Then he leaps from his chair and starts running to keep up, as places and times and people are strangely elided (with 10 actors playing all the characters).

Amid the echoing sounds of a train station, a flock of people with suitcases fly by, the rear wall shunts forward, and a weeping woman in her underwear slowly passes, pushing a bed. Piecing the shards of Alfred's story together, one gleans that he has had two brides and lost both to death or other men. There are intimations of a past crime, imminent retribution and an obsession with mortality. We see him repeatedly waiting at a stage door for his second wife, becoming decrepit preternaturally fast. Other times, he is back at school being chastised, suddenly on stage in a ballet, or on a beach with his mother who died when he was a boy.

This staging has some weak patches. Several of the opening scenes, with a voiceover, seem pretentious and comically feeble. Yet Mitchell and co beautifully convey the evanescence of Strindberg's dream, while introducing more coherence and clarity by focusing on Alfred's griefs, which are essentially the playwright's. Churchill can sharply combine the surreal and the satirical, slipping in some very English pomposities. More importantly, the whole company brilliantly overlays the disturbing and the absurd, as when everybody at the stage door starts fast-forwarding as if their lives are flashing by in time-lapse photography.

This is startlingly deft physical theatre from classically trained actors, including Anastasia Hille, Lucy Whybrow, Dominic Rowan and Justin Salinger. The stagehands in the wings manage costume-changes with magical alacrity. The multilayered soundtrack is menacing but also transcendently lovely, including Schubert's Nacht und Träume softly sung by Mark Padmore. Many of the images are unforgettable, not least Alfred's mother (Hille) drowning her long, golden hair in a basin of water. Ultimately, the imagination is wonderful, as the tables start rolling like storm-tossed ships, or insanely wagging their tail-ends and nuzzling Alfred, like an affectionate pack of dogs.

By comparison, Edward Hall's inventiveness looks limited in his touring Winter's Tale. I'm not fully convinced his male troupe, Propeller, deserves all the rave reviews it has garnered. A few too many directorial ideas are borrowed: a sea voyage represented by a toy ship (cf Peter Brook), the ghost of the sorrow-slain princeling, Mamillus, haunting the play (see Declan Donnellan). Too many of Hall's corps also confuse urgency with shouting.

That said, this low-budget staging, set in a ruined palace strewn with hour-glasses, grows ever more absorbing. Richard Clothier's jealous King Leontes, having started out as a party-loving smoothie in black-tie, becomes feverish, like a seriously ill paranoid fantasist. Though it takes some adjustment, having the ladies played by men with brawny arms also starts to seem metaphorically apt. Queen Hermione and her daughter Perdita are, after all, tougher than expected, surviving trials and tribulations which are meant to kill them. Most strikingly, Simon Scardifield's Hermione joshes with the chaps then - when unjustly accused of adultery - exudes a delicate purity shot through with palpable anger and great moral strength.

In Bohemia, the play's dreamlike other realm where tragedy turns to comedy, there are some charming surprises, including the killer-bear represented by a child's teddy and half the cast doubling as sheep. Beyond that, Hall makes the final forgiving of Leontes and his reunion with his lost family sharply ambiguous. Scardifield's Hermione may, indeed, have been turned to stone at some deep level, embracing her husband tentatively, as if her soul is stiff. A silent coda also has Tam Williams (who plays Perdita and Time as well) reappearing as Mamillus's ghost, refusing Leontes' outstretched hands and darkly blowing out his candle. Certainly worth catching.

Finally, the fast-rising playwright Laura Wade's family drama, Colder Than Here, is about facing the hard facts of death. Margot Leicester's Myra has terminal cancer and wants to get everything sorted out before she is, so to speak, too late. She brings together her arguing daughters and emotionally repressed husband, Michael Pennington's Alec, urging them to talk through the details of her funeral. They have to go on picnics, looking for the right spot for her grave, and live with her cardboard coffin in the lounge.

At first, this seems a bland, whimsically tragicomic middle-class drama. Naomi Wilkinson's set, blurring the living-room carpet into the hillocks of a wooded cemetery, is more poetic than the writing. However, given time, the closely observed truth of Wade's strained yet loving relationships proves acutely touching, and Abigail Morris's cast is quietly excellent. Leicester's Myra is more richly complicated than she seems: stalwartly down-to-earth and tenderly benevolent, but also pushily anxious. Pennington's Alec is subtly poised between wry humour, almost cruel taciturnity, and overwhelming silent suffering. By the end, Colder Than Here has become heartbreaking. At the same time, it attains a kind of peace as Leicester sits, one spring morning, in a mossy wood, then just lies down gently and gazes at the sky. It will be fascinating to compare this with Wade's next play, Breathing Corpses, which opens at the Royal Court later this month.

k.bassett@independent.co.uk

'A Dream Play': NT Cottesloe, London SE1 (020 7452 3000), to 11 May; 'The Winter's Tale': Watermill, Newbury (01635 46044), to 19 March, then touring; 'Colder Than Here': Soho, London W1 (0870 429 6883), to Sat

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