If you go down to the woods

21st March 1997 at 00:00
The return of the ESC

The English Shakespeare Company is back, with all its raw innovation. In case there is any doubt, And-rew Jarvis has even had Richard III's double-breasted pin-stripe of a decade ago dry-cleaned to do service for Theseus in this A Midsummer Night's Dream from the design-direction partnership of Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch.

But this is not a make-do-and-mend Dream. Characteristically, as part of the ESC's new manifestation (three years after it ceased touring) as the National Children's Touring Theatre, it is a minimalist production, a dark Dream which borders on nightmare at times, but with invention which testifies to ESC artistic director Michael Bogdanov's belief that you can never wear Shakespeare out.

Jarvis's Duke starts off as a Mafia don, but settles down to a less shifty chairman of the board as the deviousness of his other role, Oberon, takes over the sinister persona. The counterpoint is Julian Bleach's Puck - or is it Igor, as he scutters about bent almost horizontal, all knees and elbows? And the action seems to pivot around this relationship rather than that of Oberon and Titania - we never see a Changeling Boy, a red herring, in this version. The fairy queen and Hippolyta are doubled by Claire Benedict, whose defiance of TheseusOberon scarcely surfaces as her tall frame glides gracefully about the stage.

The Rude Mechanicals are also the Fairies, not this time leaping around in dancing pumps or dangling on the ends of wires, but alarmingly swaying about on different height stilts, which somehow gives the same hovering impression. And these six, led by Malcolm Scate's gloriously over-the-top but perfectly timed Bottom, make the most of Shakespeare's farce at its best.

The designersdirectors have cottoned on to the fact that Bottom wants to do everything, and he is a weaver: therefore, he is likely to want to make all the costumes too, including the beards and wigs, in the material he knows best, so that the final play is bedecked in ludicrous basketry which makes for irresistible slap-stick.

But this is the Sellotape Dream. The opening scene is Theseus's palace, signified by empty picture frames hanging in mid-air which in a twinkling become the framework of the forest, with ankle catching brambles and sight obscuring branches represented by the sticky tape which the cast pull endlessly from rolls attached to the frames.

From it, the fairies weave a bank where the wild thyme blows, Bottom's ass's head is partly wound out of it. If this is a children's production, there are no obvious concessions to a youthful audience. The lines are delivered clearly but not unduly deliberately, and the action moves easily with the natural dynamic of the story line with no forced simplicity.

Touring with Michael Bogdanov's adaptation of Beowulf: His Majesty's, Aberdeen (until tomorrow); the Grand, Leeds (March 31-April 5); the Theatre Royal, Nottingham (April 14-19); the Congress, Eastbourne (April 21-26); the New Theatre, Hull (April 28-May 3); the Hexagon, Reading (May 5-10); the Marlowe, Canterbury (May 12-17); the Grand, Blackpool (May 19-24); the Derngate, Northampton (June 2-7); the New Victoria, Woking (June 9-14); the Theatre Royal Newcastle (June 16-21).

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