THEATRE / Shakespeare in space: In Montreal, Irving Wardle sees another fresh approach to Shakespeare, from Robert Lepage

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EUROPE got to know Robert Lepage from the vast theatrical poems of his Theatre Repere troupe of Quebec. On this territory he is an undisputed master. But Lepage the director of classic texts is another matter; and in his waterlogged Midsummer Night's Dream at the National Theatre last year, he seemed more interested in mise-en-scene than character.

This impression was reinforced by the Shakespeare cycle - The Tempest, Coriolanus and Macbeth - he directed for this month's Festival de Theatre des Ameriques in Montreal. I saw the shows in that order and emerged from the first with my senses tingling as if from a cold shower. To some extent this happens with any performance in French; remove the skin of language and you get fresh insight into the anatomy. But the real illumination came from a flow of imagery projecting Lepage's idea of what The Tempest is about.

At first sight, the dingy rehearsal-room set provokes blank disbelief. How can this of all plays be staged with a couple of tables, a wall mirror, and a row of tin lockers? Then the company begins a tentative reading under the paternalistic direction of Prospero, and the penny drops. This is a show about the creative process. A toy ship glides down the table, actors one by one make up at the mirror, and as Guy Laramee's bicycle- wheel autoharp spins under a plectrum filling the air with the music of the island, the humdrum space is charged with magic.

Several of Lepage's trademarks are here. Tables have always been important to him, and he uses them as a stage trap for the imprisoned Ariel and the shipwrecked party, or up- ends them for Caliban's den. Tables also become a performance platform, exploiting vertical as well as horizontal space, just as the strip-lighting bar becomes a trapeze for Marie Brassard's Ariel.

These are planned details; but the essence of the show is that it conveys a sense of shared discovery, so that the boldest effects seem to arise from the actors' inflamed imagination - as where Ariel, for want of a magic banquet, swings back and forth on the trapeze while the victims slash at her grotesquely magnified reflection. Characterisation is uninteresting, but the company is no docile prisoner of the mise-en-scene.

In Macbeth it is hard to describe them as anything else; and they are further muffled by a pastiche medieval translation which proved a barrier even to native speakers. This is one of Lepage's exercises in horizontal space - played on a two-level set consisting of a hinged palisade at stage level and an upper level where Macbeth (Gerald Gagnon) and Banquo are first seen like airborne samurai as the company drums out its riding rhythm on the timber supports. There is no lack of striking images, some evolving throughout the show: the basin in which Lady Macbeth washes Macbeth's hair long before the sleepwalking scene; the hum of swinging thuribles that finally changes to the hum of crossbows; the faceless witches, who materialise in the cauldron scene only as disembodied hands caressing Macbeth through the bars; Mme Brassard's Lady Macbeth masturbating in the nude; and a long-pissing Porter who must hold the world record for bladder control.

Worse than these attention-grabbing details is the sketchy generalisation of the performance between one big effect and the next; and the lack of any governing idea.

All three plays have to do with the use and abuse of power, but it is only in Coriolanus that the idea comes into central focus, combined with performances as sharp as Hirschfield cartoons. This modern-dress production is about the manipulation of public opinion; and the play changes to a biting, uproarious satire in which Coriolanus is not a tragic hero but a would-be politician who cannot learn the rules of politics.

This is an extreme example of horizontal staging. Backed by honking dance rhythms from an array of klaxons and motor horns, most of the action takes place behind a rectangular slit in the front cloth; standing actors are visible only up to the waist. It opens in a broadcasting studio with the fable of the belly delivered by Menenius as a soft-soap address to the unseen multitude. Other locations are equally specific. Cominius briefs Coriolanus on election tactics in a post-battle locker room. Menenius and the Tribunes rub shoulders in a neighbourhood bar, following the festivities by hopping television channels. The set splits in two, with the patricians prematurely toasting their man's victory while in an adjoining office the tribunes plot his downfall over the phone. There is also visual magic, such as the siege of Corioli by toy soldiers, followed by the naked combat of Coriolanus and Aufidius reflected from the concealed stage floor so that they seem to be clinging to a wall of death.

If this is not the whole play, it wonderfully highlights the element closest to our experience - not least for Canadians in mid- elections. Coriolanus visits the Nottingham Playhouse in November; the cycle is due in Manchester and London next year.