THEATRE / Mud, mud, inglorious mud: Paul Taylor reviews Robert Lepage's eagerly-awaited but cheerless vision of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the National Theatre

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The Independent Culture
MOST of my colleagues rubbished The Pocket Dream when it played in the West End earlier this year. But that good- humoured spoof of a disaster- prone, tatty old rep production kept better faith with the spirit of Shakespeare's great comedy than anything to be found in Robert Lepage's leadenly paced, unfunny Midsummer Night's Dream, just opened in the Olivier.

It's a show that will appeal principally to mud-wrestling fanatics or to chronic sufferers from nostalgie de la boue. You sense it is going to be another wet Dream when you see the people in the first two rows climbing into the little hooded plastic macs the management has thoughtfully provided. It's a wise precaution, for Lepage has located the entire play in and around a large filthy pond, with a border of churned-up mud, and set against cheerless black walls. I can't recall a Shakespeare production more dominated or denatured by a design concept since Lyubimov's Hamlet, where tragedy was turned to farce by the autocratic manoeuvrings of the huge hempen curtain that made it look as though Elsinore was being terrorised by a Brobdingnagian dishcloth.

Here the design arrogantly obliterates the distinctions between various worlds and species the play brings together. Athens is not distinguished from the wood, nor the dream confusions from waking reality. At the start, for example, Theseus and Hippolyta, about as lively as statues, are seen perched on the end of an iron single bed, which is being punted in circles by a turbaned servant. Asleep on it, top-to-toe, are the four young lovers who stir back to consciousness bemusedly as each is required for the scene with the irate Egeus. All of them are dressed for bed, and that's how they remain, though their vests and pyjamas have been put through the wash in time for the court celebrations in the last act. Just as well, really, for by the end of all those thrashing mud fights in the forest (a wrestle, doubtless, with the dark subconscious), the four of them would make Poor Tom in Lear look quite the dandy.

One of the few moments of mirth comes when Peter Quince (Steven Beard), surveying the bleak, godforsaken scene, says 'here's a marvellous convenient place for our rehearsal'. Indeed, Timothy Spall's Bottom, a fatuous twerp trying to be a cool medallion man, seems, in these water- logged conditions, to have made an inspired fashion choice in his platform shoes. Angela Laurier, who plays Puck as an androgynous circus act, is French Canadian and has clearly been chosen for her skills as a contortionist and acrobat. But she negotiates English verse with all the nimbleness of Inspector Clouseau: 'Wat 'empern 'omesperns 'ave we swaggereeng 'ere?' etc.

Lepage has little time for the text, though, since he goes to great lengths to distract you from it. It's impossible to concentrate on Theseus's thematically vital speech about 'The lunatic, the lover and the poet', because behind him the four lovers (still in nightwear of course) are making an eccentric progress, stepping on chairs round the side of the pool, their servant having to race backwards and forwards transferring the end chairs to the front so that they can keep going. Is this such a charming visual conceit that it's worth upstaging the speech? Bottom's awakening, likewise, has to compete with the sound and sight of the mechanicals fixing up their bed in the middle of the pool, and one thing the production teaches you that it's impossible to slosh silently.

Even the spectacle, at which this director normally excels, is rather disappointing. An upended bed becomes a prison, or a door. A dangling light bulb proves to be full of milk. Sally Dexter's Titania sleeps suspended upside down. The ass's ears on Bottom are formed by the feet of Puck who is crouching on his back. That idea is typical in having wit but no real warmth of humour (as ordinary false ears would have): it's all cleverness and no instinct for the sort of comedy the play is trying to purvey. As Helena rightly puts it: 'O long and tedious night'.

Box office: 071-928 2252.

(Photograph omitted)