THEATRE / The sleep of the unjust: Jeffrey Wainwright reviews Michael Rudman's A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Sheffield Crucible

Click to follow
MICHAEL Rudman, here opening his first season as Artistic Director of Sheffield Theatres, has conceptualised A Midsummer Night's Dream as a set of dreams, each waking into the next until the entire dream dissolves with the house lights up and the Athenians and supernaturals returned to their actors' rehearsal clothes. This last, apart from an ill-fated attempt to get the audience to join in the song's refrain, is the most memorable moment of the evening, and also the only one where Rudman's overall scheme becomes apparent.

The whole middle part of the play is conceived as the dream of Theseus. The argument for this might be that at an unconscious level Theseus is anxious about his forthcoming marriage to Hippolyta and uneasy about his own harshness as patriarchal ruler in condemning Hermia to death or a nunnery should she persist in loving Lysander instead of the chosen Demetrius. If this can be accepted then what we see is Theseus as the fairy king Oberon contriving harmony through further mastery over Hippolyta in the guise of Titania (both roles, as is now customary, are doubled) and finding a better self in seeking to reconcile the young lovers to their proper partners. All this is contradictory enough to be the stuff of dreams, but if there is a moment or device that sets up the action so that it can be understood in this way, then I confess I missed it. Also, however illogical dreams are, why should Theseus dream the Mechanicals with their play? Surely it the very solid quiddity of Bottom and his companions, sympathetically rude figures in a superciliously gentle world, that is their interest.

The overall concept of the production would matter less if in practice it were more than sporadically engaging. The opening scene, crucial to this interpretation, is short of attack and precision; the speaking more like recitation than active thought. Also Kendra Ullyart's set seems uncomfortable. Cool Grecian columns and staircases stand behind a green, hummocky ground which seems an unlikely floor for a court. It works better as the stonework is lifted away to leave ivy- clad ruins for the forest scenes but it never provides enough acting space. Its papier-mache resembles a landscape model, presumably as seen from the height of Puck's girdle round the earth, but it's hard to do more than note this in cerebral fashion. The giddying switch of perspectives it might imply didn't quite come off.

The acting is workmanlike but rarely exciting. Missing was a sense that these words had been worked on with the concentration that results in narrative and psychological clarity. However Katy Brittain's Hermia achieves a real, energetic distinctiveness. In the fairy world it is always difficult to avoid the fey and absurd, but the dancing here is of the embarrassing run-stop-jerk variety. The whole ending is good, though it is excessively milked by a choreographed, cheerleading curtain call that demands a response the production has not really earned.

Continues to 24 October; box office (0742-769922)