Theatre: He also serves who only excels

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The Independent Culture
The Servant to Two Masters

RSC Stratford

A Midsummer Night's Dream

RSC London

There must be something in Jason Watkins's nature that simultaneously suggests servility and mischief. In Jonathan Miller's Almeida production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Watkins played Puck as a flunkey in tails and white gloves who replied, when told to race round the wood, "I go, I go" and quit the stage with an air of extreme leisure. Watkins is the servant every master wants to kick up the backside. He's a natural harlequin.

Last week in Stratford, Watkins graduated to the servant's servant, Truffaldino. In Goldoni's 18th-century comedy Truffaldino is a Venetian chancer who hits on the scam of doubling his income by serving two masters at the same time without either of them noticing. In a lively new version by Lee Hall (whose play Spoonface Steinberg moves into the West End next month), Truffaldino justifies his actions in topical terms as "streamlined efficiency", "downsizing the service economy" and "a miracle of time-management". Hall packs his script with knowing references. "I could have been a contender," says Truffaldino. He also pursues jokes about as far as it is possible to go. It is unlikely that after this production there are many more humorous angles to be wrung out of the idea of someone serving a dish of spotted dick.

Goldoni wrote the play when commedia dell'arte characters, with their dizzying improvisational turns, were giving way to more regularised text- based characters. His play stands as a bridge between the old archetypes of the pantaloon, pedant and sighing lovers and modern farce. In its own way, it serves two masters. It's greatly to the credit of director Tim Supple, in this joint production with the Young Vic, that by highlighting this stylistic tension the play feels more modern, as if it was a form that had evolved out of alternative comedy.

A few years ago, Supple and his designer Robert Innes Hopkins, staged a wondrous production of The Comedy of Errors that tapped the melancholy and loss in the play. They have returned to the same venue, The Other Place, with another farcical plot and a similar plan. The main difference is that this time they seat the audience on two sides of the action, which creates its own problems. It is not easy to make an aside when you have to face in two directions. Early on, the laughs were a little scattered as the staging makes it harder to control focus and time jokes, but Supple's production grew considerably when the physical comedy took over.

This bright, buoyant and loveable production uncovers more pathos than you might expect. There are good performances from Nikki Amuka-Bird's bemused young lover Clarice, Michelle Butterly's no- nonsense maid Smeraldina and Claire Cox's luminous Beatrice, who spends most of the play disguised as a man and surprises us all (in a farce) by weeping real tears.

But the evening is a triumph for Watkins, with his stripey socks, hair standing up on end and exaggerated postures of respect. In the bafflement he affects at each piece of news he looks like a younger version of John Bird doing one of those interviews with John Fortune. The longer his routines go on - whether somersaulting on to an envelope to ensure that it is properly sealed, or covering his face with sauce as he lasciviously buries his head deep in the main course - the better they become.

The RSC's artistic director, Adrian Noble, sat directly opposite me and it was impossible not to wonder, as Truffaldino rushed from one place to another, trying to satisfy some fairly demanding customers, whether Noble didn't share a certain fellow feeling with the servant as he shuttles between the demands of Stratford and the Barbican. This year's Stratford production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which hit the papers when a convent teacher removed her class away during the interval, has moved now south.

Seeing it at the Barbican, it's impossible not to believe that the teacher wasn't an enterprising member of the RSC press office stirring up some publicity to get more schools in. It has obviously worked. The matinee I saw was three-quarters full of schoolchildren and the auditorium could be divided into segments of blue and red jerseys.

Michael Boyd's production pushes the erotic subtext so determinedly that you worry that the main thrust of the production is going to be pelvic. In its tireless invention, its surface colour and pumped-up gestures, it is a characteristic late-Nineties RSC show: energetically directed and designed (by Tom Piper) to within an inch of its life.

`': Stratford Other Place (01789 403 403) to 22 Jan, then transfer to Young Vic. `Midsummer Night's Dream': Barbican, EC2 (0171 638 8891) to 17 Feb