A Midsummer Night's Dream, Open Air Theatre,, London

Battle of the sexes with few winners

The set for this season's production of the Open Air Theatre's hardy perennial has a rear wall of lush greenery that blends into the park's own. But above it hangs a moon all too obviously made of wrinkled paper, and before it is a terrazzo floor that gives way to rubble and a few logs, some on the ground, some leaning in a discouraged sort of way. Paul Farnsworth's design is a harbinger of the mood of Michael Pennington's modern-dress production. There are a number of enjoyable things in this Midsummer Night's Dream, but they take a back seat to the production's lack of movement, music and mystery.

The female parts are completely without femininity. Phillipa Peak's Hippolyta, the reluctant Amazon bride, doesn't act as if she is fearful of marriage but as if she is nursing a decades-old marital grudge against her intended. Claire Redcliffe, a pouty Hermia, when told that she has to wed her father's choice, is not so much despondent at losing her true love as indignant at not getting her own way. When she and Lysander elope, she orders him to bed down at a respectable distance like a brat telling her guests which toys they are allowed to play with. Helena (Victoria Woodward) not only hurls herself at her unrequited love, Demetrius, as if she could bag him with a rugby tackle, but does so with a dopey grin, which stays on when she drops to all fours to imitate a spaniel, in this case one that's decidedly gaga. Unattractive in itself, the two girls' aggressiveness takes the fun out of their later barney when the mischief caused by Puck's love dust changes the genteel girls into spitfires. Titania, Queen of the Fairies (Issy van Randwyck), has no majesty, ranting away at Oberon. One can, however, understand her irritation at Dale Rapley's Fairy King, a bawling bully, who, in his delivery of the "I know a bank whereon the wild thyme blows" speech, might be contesting an election.

The fairy cohort is a low-budget four, their rainbow-coloured, patched and ripped and ruffled garments a Seventies art student's idea of the rich-hippie look, and their faces deadened by silent-film makeup under haystack wigs. Worst of all, they simply stand about, like forgotten mannequins, as do Egeus in the play scene and Oberon and Puck when they are watching the lovers. The last, bald and bare-chested, puffs and plods and, when reproved by his master, answers with a vigorous obscene gesture.

The duke and the male lovers, however, are a delightful bunch. John Hodgkinson's Theseus, rolling out pronouncements with an utterly unconvincing air of authority, is a droll figure out of Gilbert and Sullivan. But the discontinuity between the clueless pomposity of his first appearance and the dry wit of his comments on the mechanicals' play is jarring, and it's hard to believe that a man who is always wrong-footing himself could command troops, much less conquer the Amazons. Amusing though the characterisation is in parts, its whole is an illustration of Pennington's tendency to sacrifice unity to individual effects.

As Lysander, Nick Fletcher, unshaven, tie-less and in suede shoes (clearly an artist, or worse), is an engaging, forthright youth, the only normal person in this crowd of misfits. Funniest of all, though, is the Demetrius of Nicholas Burns, a pinstriped and bespectacled young fogey who draws his shoulders in and tries to smirk his way out of having ditched Helena. Pursued by her in the forest, he asks, "Do I entice you?" with the prissiness of a bureaucrat sighing at having to deal with people who simply refuse to be reasonable. When Demetrius gets a whiff of misdirected fairy dust, there's a fine pay-off in the way he signals his instant transformation into sex beast: with a demented leer, he whips his glasses off.

There is further disjointedness in the dress of the mechanicals: braces and flat caps put them 50 years behind everyone else. Peter Forbes's Bottom is energetic without being comic, but John Conroy's Peter Quince turns into an unexpected highlight with his imitation of a nervous Noël Coward, complete with dressing-gown. My favourite performer, Paddy Ward (Starveling), doesn't have to say a word to keep us giggling away as he sinks deeper and deeper into gloom during the rehearsal, his expression leaving us in no doubt about his opinion of the tragical comedy.

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