Theatre: So what's wrong with trees?

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SHAKESPEAREAN FORESTS are out of favour this year. First the English Shakespeare Company reduced the Forest of Arden to three mobile metal towers. Now the Oxford Stage Company has gone one further, with stage and backdrop bare of anything that might be even suggestively arboreal. All that is left is a blank floor boxed in with what appear to be plastic roofing panels.

Yet the staging lacks the distinct statement of Peter Brook's white box. It is an empty stage, signifying nothing.

Initially, you feel that this may be a blank canvas on which all manner of delights will be drawn. But the overall ambience of John Retallack's final production for OSC is that of the workshop, a voyage of exploration for the cast which they have not yet completed. For all their polished professionalism, the production itself feels as if it is still in rehearsal.

There are some nice touches, such as Christopher Beck's Puck tumbling across the stage, rubbing against Oberon's leg like a friendly cat. In her first professional production, Victoria Woodward - in addition to demonstrating that Hippolyta need not be a second-rank add-on - delivers a towering, sensual Titania whose life force nearly blasts Simon Coury's shy and hesitant Fairy King off the stage.

However, Retallack's production excels primarily when it steers full tilt for the play's humour. This is comedy played with a broad brush, firmly within the comic conventions of Nineties television.

The lovers are four snappy professionals - Crouch End types whose weekends revolve around cappuccino and Ikea and This Life - thus transforming their scenes into a Shakespearean version of Dressing for Breakfast. Their argument in the forest builds into a display of comic wrestling and finely-tuned physical theatre with all the smooth interflow of a WWF tag team.

Meanwhile, the Mechanicals mine a more slapstick vein of caricature comedy, reminiscent of the old sketch show Three of a Kind. However, some of the edge is lost by the fact that the characters staging the production are drawn with almost as much exaggeration as the bucolic am-drams put before the duke. Nicholas Beveney in particular, as a towering Bottom, might be better advised to rein in his Lenny Henry-esque cartooning.

At just over two hours long, with no interval, this production makes mainly physical demands on its audience. It is as good a way of seeing Shakespeare's text staged as any, and the comedy is as amusing as most of the offerings of the television schedulers.

But I still miss the magic of the forest.

Touring to Stirling, Huddersfield, Ilfracombe and Glasgow