THEATRE / The watered-down version: Robert Lepage's new National Theatre production of A Midsummer Night's Dream brings Shakespeare down to earth - it's set in a swamp. Sarah Hemming reports

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'Mega-splash coming up]' warns one of the stage-crew for A Midsummer Night's Dream. The cast and crew make hastily for the sides of the rehearsal room, as Oberon lashes out in a sudden rage at Puck, thrashing his cloak about him and sending out great sprays of black muddy water around the room.

The National Theatre's new production of Shakespeare's summer comedy is performed in a swamp. This is perhaps not so surprising when you learn that the director is the French-Canadian Robert Lepage. Of his recent productions, the Dragons' Trilogy was performed on a bed of sand; Tectonic Plates was performed partly on water, and in Needles and Opium, Lepage himself spun dizzyingly over the stage in a harness.

The Dream is a new departure though - this time Lepage is working with British actors on a Shakespeare text, rather than shaping the text through rehearsal. And as Lepage's magical use of simple imagery has led to his name being linked with that of Peter Brook, whose ground-breaking production of A Midsummer Night's Dream was staged in 1971, the new production has attracted much curiosity. But where Brook's production was airy and trapeze-borne, Lepage's is earthy and wet, performed solely in a huge puddle of water circled by oozing, black mud, into which the actors frequently fling themselves.

This watery setting lends a strange air of calm to the rehearsal room in the National Theatre. Technicians splosh back and forth, clad in boots or plastic leggings; every movement is accompanied by a satisfying sloosh. A vase of delicate flowers sits on the director's table, in odd contrast to the wet and mud-spattered letters and faxes.

Lepage himself, a solid and quiet presence in black wellingtons, trudges in and out of the swamp to give notes. He appears good-humoured and relaxed. He never raises his voice, but watches as people try things, smiling when they go right, wading over to suggest scarcely audible alternatives when they don't. His gentle manner seems at odds with the startling images he creates.

'I think he wanted to use the mud because the play is about people finding out things about themselves, reaching their basest level,' says Simon Coates, who plays Demetrius, one of the hapless lovers. 'The dirtiness of the mud is symbolic of that.' He soaks his mud-caked feet in a tin bath of warm water.

As the lost lovers become entangled in their nightmarish dream, pursuing each other and grappling with their desires, they become covered in the primordial slime. Since they are clad in plain white underclothes, this lends them a pathetic, bedraggled air. 'It earths you,' adds Coates. 'It really helps you as you start to get dirty. You get to feel the vulnerability of the lovers. You're wet, you're dirty, you're in a strange environment where you don't know what's happening to you. You really feel helpless.'

Whereas the lovers stumble awkwardly around this threatening, dank world, the fairies - lithe, reptilian creatures - revel in it. And as Angela Laurier, who plays Puck, points out, the mud is just one aspect of a production that pays great attention to movement.

'At the beginning, moving in the mud was very scary,' says Laurier. 'But you find it's a help. The mud is slippery and you have to be careful and concentrate. And that gives you something very strong. On an ordinary floor, you don't even realise you're moving, but in this mud you become very aware of your movements.'

An extraordinarily pliant, gamine-faced contortionist, Laurier was spotted by Lepage performing in a cabaret in Montreal. After a lifetime of acrobatics, circus-acts and dance, she was ready to try something new. 'Circus is very limited - it's just physical. My technique is already assured. In contortion work you often keep a pose for five minutes or so - and I can speak in that position. The rhythm and speeches are fantastic with movement: Puck's speeches are very physical. Robert allows you time, he leaves you free to find things by yourself. He lets you try things - and even if it's not good, you have to try it.'

Laurier seems prepared to try anything. As she takes a perilous dive from the top corner of a large upturned bed - suspended only by Oberon holding a strap of her costume - Lepage watches, troubled. He wades over.

'This image here is not efficient,' he says, quietly. 'Because where she is dangling, only two- thirds of the Olivier will see it. It would be much better if she could jump off the front.'

Laurier tries it from the front of the bed. But Oberon cannot get a good purchase on her from this angle and she plunges horribly fast towards the ground. 'Ah] Bungy- jumping]' says Lepage, wiping away the flecks of mud from his eye.

'I would like to go on living, if possible,' mutters Laurier, genially, as she dangles upside- down, head a fraction above the swamp. Lepage gently flicks a strand of mud-caked hair out of her eye for her and she clambers back to the top to try all over again.

As well as playing Puck, Laurier has spent the last two months coaching the fairies in acrobatics and movement. They are now impressively proficient in backflips, somersaults, handstands and cartwheels - although the mud dictates that for the most part they use only the physical alertness this training produces, since backflips could be lethal. Yet none of the fairies were trained dancers or gymnasts, and in fact some performers with just such experience were turned down at audition. 'I think Robert chooses actors largely according to their personality,' says Laurier. 'For him the team is very important, and the potential of the performers.'

As one secret of Lepage's productions seems to be to keep a rein on the actors but still allow them room for manoeuvre, the cast have found that their potential is often drawn upon. 'He'll just ask you to do things,' says Paul Meston, one of the fairies. 'He'll say 'Could you go up that rope?', whereas a lot of English directors would say 'We were wondering if you wouldn't mind climbing a rope'. It's just the way Robert has of saying it - you just do it.'

And they have found Lepage's tactile and daring approach refreshing. 'Usually you do a read- through, then you're blocking the production and discussing the text,' says Sarah D'Arcy, who plays Cobweb. 'There's lots of talking going on. His concern is not beautifully spoken verse. He does approach it very differently. The physical world of the play is very important.'

'He expects an awful lot from the actors,' adds Alison Reid, who plays Peaseblossom. 'And I think that's a good thing.'

'A Midsummer Night's Dream' opens at the Olivier, National Theatre, London SE1 on 9 July (previews from 3 July). Box office: 071- 928 2252.

An 'Omnibus' profile of Robert Lepage will be broadcast on 16 October, BBC2.

(Photographs omitted)