Set plays

9th June 2000 at 01:00
A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM. Regent's Park Open Air Theatre, London. THE TEMPEST. Shakespeare's Globe, London.

While The Tempest opened on Bankside in rain so relentless as to look like a theatrical effect, Alan Strachan, directing The Dream, was considering the extra dimension posed by the weather to any production in Regent's Park.

At the Globe, the actors and all the seated audience remain under cover; in the park everyone is exposed to the elements. "We do have a wet weather version. It's not fair to have actors lying on the wet grass for too long, so we have to magic blankets for the lovers and change some of the entrances - you can't expect someone to crawl down a bank, for instance."

There are references to an upset in the seasons in Titania's speech about how her quarrel with Oberon and their neglect of their responsibilities have wrought havoc in nature. "We are making some of the trees look blighted and leaves on fairy costumes will be from a mixture of seasons."

Not that there is to be anything twee about the fairies, Strachan insists; indeed he sees them as "troubling, anarchic".

He believes recent productions have emphasised the dark side of the play, the sexual frustrations, at the expense of the comedy. "There is, of course, a contrast between the 'civilised' world, so-called, of the court and the instinctual world of the forest."

Strachan has chosen to set his production in the mid-19th century. "The world of the court is very hierarchical, conventional, patriarchal; there is a mirror-image in the licentious world of the forest . The Victorians were fascinated by Shakespeare and the world of Faerie, and everyone knows that under the codified exterior there was a simmering underworld."

Titania and Oberon double with Hippolyta and Theseus, and Puck with Pilostrate to underline this dichotomy, and the fairies inhabit a looser, more Pre-Raphaelite world.

Demetrius is set firmly in the upper-class, aristocratic mould, "a Dartmouth cadet. Lysander is more of a dreamer, a poet". The lovers are changed by their experience; their sojourn in the forest represents a rite of passage. Strachan sees the whole play as a series of transformations.

The Mechanicals are affected by what has happened to Bottom to the extent that Flute, as Thisbe, becomes touching in the play they perform. Even Oberon, "a monster" to begin with, is contrite by the end, admitting his shame to Puck with whom, in this production, he will have a close relationship, rather like that between Prospero and Ariel in The Tempest. For Strachan these immortal creatures suffer emotion as humans do, but even more intensely, "cubed" in fact.

At the Globe, Geraldine Alexander's cool Ariel is one of the strengths of a production that offers a mercurial Vanessa Redgrave as Prospero, imposing but gentler than most inhabitants of the part. When actors and audience combine in a Blitz spirit to combat the effects of the weather, it is easy for magic to lose out to comedy and Jasper Britton's fish-tossing Caliban forgoes some of the complexity of his character by appealing too readily to the pit.

Trinculo (Steven Alvey) and Stefano (Steffan Rhodri) make the most of the Globe's comic opportunities and the audience love them for it. Watch out for the clever opening scene in which Ariel's paper boat is mimicked by the storm-tossed sailors and listen to the haunting Balkan music reflecting the taste of Belgrade-born director Lenka Udovicki.

Heather Neill

Regent's Park: 020 7486 2431. Globe: 020 7401 9919, 24 hours: 020 7316 4703. Talking to Shakespeare:

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