THEATRE : A Dream date with Jonathan Miller

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That shrewd and knavish sprite, Robin Goodfellow, better known as Puck, was an old pro when it came to mischief. He stole milk, frightened maidens, misled wanderers and tricked old ladies into falling on their bums. Had he been around in 1996, and still looking for trouble, Puck might also have turned his hand to directing classics. This year's Puck Award for Mucking About with Shakespeare goes to - a late entry, this - Jonathan Miller, and the Almeida's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Anyone looking for a well-rounded and balanced account of the play might be tempted to charge Miller under the Trades Description Act. For his Dream is a wholehearted assault on the romantic tradition. Show Miller a purple passage (ie a few lines of poetry) and he shows you a way to deflate it. Not that he leaves you empty-handed. He packs his Dream with vintage British character actors who animate each scene with problems of their own. The result in this perverse, chilling and vinegary production is frequently very funny.

The designers, the Quay Brothers, present us with the inside of a deserted Viennese amusement arcade, where a row of mottled glass doors have a maze of doors and passageways leading off behind. Theseus (Robert Swann) appears in this melancholy atmosphere wearing a smoking jacket, waving a cigar, and alternating between plumminess and anxiety. Both he and his future bride Hippolyta (Angela Down) look as if they are on their second, if not their third marriages, and neither seems in a hurry to get on with it.

This unease is entirely characteristic: in each scene, speech and (almost) line that follows, Miller and his cast have come up with a conspicuously - not to say self-consciously - new reading. When Norman Rodway's Oberon, with glassy eyes, a gravel voice and a ghostly face, says he knows a bank where "the wild thyme blows", he speaks of the bank with the horror of a man suffering from hayfever. He screws up his nose at the mention of "eglantine". As Puck, Jason Watkins dresses in tails, white gloves and fancy waistcoat, like a flunkey at a five-star hotel. When he tells Rodway, in a deadpan Cockney accent, that "I go, I go," his whingeing tone really says, "All right! Keep your hair on!" As we reach each familiar point, Miller reverses our expectations. Angela Down powders her nose, while she tells her husband "I was with Hercules and Cadmus once". Her cut-glass tones suggest that, rather than hunting bears in Crete, the three of them were lunching at Harvey Nicks. In this upper-class Thirties world, the emotionally inhibited lovers could be refugees from a Ben Travers farce. They bear the lovers' "crawse". Their sickness is "cetching". When Lysander (a lovely, gangling performance from Angus Wright) lies in the forest next to Hermia (Sylvestra Le Touzel), she asks him to lie further "awff".

This makes a very entertaining first hour, but later on Miller pays the price. In the Athenian woods (the glass hallway stands in for town and country) his approach remains as fixed as the set. We are watching satirical sketches laid over Shakespearian comedy. What seemed, early on, to be inspired characterisations turn out to be straitjackets, creating a narrow, ungenerous air. This would be fatal if Miller hadn't assembled such a richly comic cast. Peter Bayliss is a beery, red-faced Bottom falling in love with a brittle, society Titania (Angela Thorne, in a gold lame dress) who looks in danger of succumbing to a migraine. Frank Williams (the vicar in Dad's Army) plays Peter Quince sublimely, as a queeny old director who, after delivering his prologue, stands in a doorway script in hand, mouthing the lines and gesturing the motions. Leonard Fenton (Captain Peacock in Are You Being Served?) is nicely forlorn as Starveling. And, as Flute, the uncomfortable amateur actor who finally gets inspired, Toby Jones takes so long to die as Thisbe that the rest of the cast have finished the play and are shaking hands with the aristocratic audience. Miller's production overflows with these kinds of gags - some crass ("now hop it," says Puck, after delivering the epilogue), some inspired. A traditional plot-point - Lysander having an aunt who lives in the woods - is delivered by Angus Wright as a most amazing stroke of luck. He flings his arms wide and beams with delight. In this, as so often elsewhere, Miller comes up with something surprising.

One evening you meet this middle-aged guy, and he tells you he's a film director, a very famous successful one in fact, and he's married to this woman called Luisa, and he's also got a very beautiful and erotic mistress, Carla, and that's not all. He has a passionate relationship, too, with a sexy film star called Claudia. This guy then pulls a gun and aims it at his head. Why? Because he doesn't have an idea for his next movie. Chill out, you might be tempted to say. There are bigger problems than having fame, success, three women, and a good excuse for not working. Well, not in Nine there aren't.

This narcissistic, glossy 1982 musical, by Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit, is based on Fellini's 81/2. In a very stylish British premiere at the Donmar, directed by David Leveaux, the central problem remains that there's only so much sympathy you can muster for a middle-aged guy who wears designer shades. As Guido Contini, Larry Lamb has just the right acquiline features, resolute expression and intelligent face to play a world-famous film director. (A very English one, called David Lean.) Lamb is a superbly natural actor, but vocally, he isn't strong enough to compel us into caring about his very Italian mid-life crisis.

The designer Anthony Ward hangs a huge gold-framed mirror at 45 degrees over a tiled floor that floods for the Venice sequence. This elegant set is beautifully lit by Paul Pyant, and Leveaux's highly polished production includes strong performances from Sara Kestleman as the producer who once sung in the Folies Bergeres, Susannah Fellows, who finds real feeling as Guido's departing wife ("Be On Your Own"), and Jenny Galloway as the rolypoly whore who initiates the nine-year-old Guido (Ian Covington) into how to be a success with women (the trick is to "Be Italian"). The most moving moments come when Lamb confronts himself as a boy. But when you are an egotist on this scale, the most meaningful relationship you're likely to have will be with yourself.

Anyone approaching the Greenwich production of Huckleberry Finn is bound to wonder how adaptor/director Matthew Francis will stage the 1,000-mile journey down a river that's a mile-and-a-half wide. Will he capture Twain's nostalgia for the fishing, swimming, paddling, and lazing around listening to the sheer quietness of a monstrous big river? Not quite. The one character missing from this attractive production is the Mississippi.

That said, Matthew Francis presents a spirited adventure story that skilfully interweaves the novel's social comedy and melodrama into a very enjoyable three-hour play. Francis draws lively performances all round: from David Killick and Ian Gelder as the fraudulent King and Duke, Andrew Muir as a flamboyant Tom Sawyer, and Daniel Newman as an engagingly candid and impish Huck. As he would say himself, a mighty nice show.

Theatre details: Going Out, page 14. NB: in the Sunday Review's `Arts Awards 1996', Polly Hemingway's first name has been given incorrectly as Paula.

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