THEATRE & OPERA / Dream team: Robert Maycock on Shakespeare and Britten, at Broomhill

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The Independent Culture
Dreams are the essence of Broomhill. Built for science shows by the pioneer of Jewish representation in the English establishment, Sir David Salomons, the private theatre outside Tunbridge Wells has in the last few years been opened up to a wide variety of stagings. The visionary approach persists: Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream is running for the rest of the season alongside Benjamin Britten's operatic version.

The opera is well known for its succinct paring-down of the action done by the composer and Peter Pears, and it isn't easy to see why audiences should want to go through the experience twice over in a short space of time (especially with opera tickets at pounds 37.50 and the play at pounds 12.50). But one effect for watchers is to spotlight how the opera does change the balance of events. Comedy is heightened, social comment toned down, the focus of the sensuality shifts. Oberon, with his music of languid longing, is more central, and Bottom's adventure with Tytania becomes a sort of group dalliance among fairies. The quartet of human lovers gets more perfunctory treatment - only the bust-up between the women seems to fire Britten's imagination.

Stephen Langridge, directing with more or less present-day designs by Claudia Mayer, sharpens some of the edges, giving Oberon and Tytania a neat line in black leather and zips. Sparce sets feature a mysterious metallic tube like a giant rectum, by way of which, perhaps inevitably, Bottom arrives - though since Puck and Oberon and most of the others happily disappear back into it we should not make too much of this. In any case it's the visual poetry of the production that lingers in the mind. Giant flowers open for the duration of the 'dream' sequences, as sexy as a Georgia O'Keeffe painting, and the wind-downs into sleep echo the magical atmosphere of the score.

So does the inspired casting of Puck: David Toole, who has no legs, moves with virtuoso pace and grace on arms of astonishing strength, even appearing to fly, while he projects a sense of danger and force. Louise Walsh's ringing, on-target Tytania dominates the singing, with a fluent Oberon (Daniel Gundlach) and persuasive Bottom (Martin Nelson) featuring strongly in the mostly young professional cast. Charles Hazlewood conducts EOS with a precision, verve and ear for balance that more than makes up for the small numbers.

In the play, Claudia Mayer gets a second go and dresses the cast in clean-cut, dateless style - except the mechanicals, who are on their factory tea-break. The bright, fairly conventional cast is directed at a frantic pace by Mark Dornford-May, intensifying the sense of danger and giving the lovers a hyped-up, urban urgency that rings true - they always were rich brats at large in a world bigger than they could comprehend. Doubling Theseus and Hippolyta with Oberon and Titania concentrates the worldly power and manipulation, just where Britten dilutes them.

It's not a searching production, but it is sympathetic and observant, and it has a collector's piece of a debut: the opera singer Benjamin Luxon, making his first straight-play appearance as Bottom. He presents the weaver-turned-actor as the real larger-than-life type - every amateur dramatic society has one, dominating the stage by sheer force of personality, and who cares if the donkey-voice goes right over the top?

Broomhill (0892 517720). Until 3 Sept

(Photograph omitted)