Theatre; THE PARK RSC, The Pit, London

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The Independent Culture
In a crowded German all-night cafe, a man and a woman are engaged in what appears to be a very hesitant private rehearsal of A Midsummer Night's Dream. "I know a bank..." the woman begins encouragingly, staring deep into her partner's eyes. Given the contemporary urban setting, you feel she could be referring to a bottlebank as the one "where the wild thyme blows" and the exchange proceeds as though she were giving therapy to an actor, hired to play Oberon, who has suffered traumatic memory-loss.

This pair aren't thespians, though, they're the real thing. Shakespeare's King and Queen of the Fairies, now conceived as incongruous, time-travelling revenants, condemned to repeat a myth which - as is abundantly clear by this late stage of The Park - they have lost the power to control. Brought to darkly witty, wonderfully suggestive life in David Fielding's staging for the RSC, Botho Strauss's "continuation" of the Dream revealingly dislocates it in a modern German social setting peopled by "sterile subsidised self-realisers" in their personal cages and by alienated teenagers. Barren ground for the fairy duo, who have to flash like filthy mac perverts, to get attention? Not entirely, since you sense a yearning the myth still has the capacity to heighten.

"Are you sure we're awake? Sometimes I feel that we're asleep and it's something else that's awake...": the malaise of these contemporary characters is altogether more existential than anything suffered in the Dream, an inwardly-turned madness rather than the healthier lunacy of love. Accordingly, the micro-sculpture amulets, which are The Park's equivalent of Puck's magic flower-juice, don't just demonstrate, in the speed with which they cause people to switch their amatory interests, the alarming arbitrariness of love-objects. They also release, in Helen (Julie Graham), the breathtaking racial prejudices her conscious mind manages to repress, with the comic result that the previously besotted George (Simon Dormandy) now feels he's been tricked into shacking up with a star-member of the Ku-Klux-Klan.

Thematic motifs from the Shakespeare surface in a provocatively warped way. The underlying bestial cruelty of the trick played on the Fairy Queen via Bottom is emphasised here by reverting to the Pasiphae and the bull myth on which it is based. Beginning risibly ("Make me a cow's arse!" yells Louise Jameson's superb, on-heat Titania), it ends with one of the most disconcerting sights I've ever seen being dragged on to a stage: the gorily ravaged, all-too-realistic hindquarters of a cow and the protruding upper half of a humiliated and confused woman who has to beg not to be made a spectacle in front of the children. Sickened by the self-interested disobedience of the old, pervy Puck-figure Cyprian (excellent Barry McCarthy) that has allowed Titania to become this "blood-soaked myth", Adrian Lukis's Oberon resigns his magic powers and joins a video-company.

Fielding's excellently acted and designed production has an intuitive feel for the various performance styles this demanding work requires. Often very funny (there's a delicious take on the young Minotaur as a hooved, Peter York-ish fop), it is also - as is proper for a work in which the spirit of Shakespeare's comedy leaks stirringly (if, in the end, impotently) into the senses of the contemporary personnel - a strangely haunting experience.

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