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A Muddy “Midsummer” Makes a Splash in London

August 11, 1992 GMT

--- ″The nine men’s morris is fill’d up with mud, (AP) _ -

″The nine men’s morris is fill’d up with mud, ...

″The human mortals want their winter here

″No night is now with hymn or carol blest.″ - ″A Midsummer Night’s Dream″

--- With PM-AP Arts: British Theater-Hostages By MATT WOLF Associated Press Writer

LONDON (AP) - Shakespeare’s ″A Midsummer Night’s Dream″ is being dragged through the mud at the Royal National Theater, leaving the actors exhausted, drenched, chilled and exhilarated.

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Robert Lepage’s production is a startling ″Dream″ - one that looks to be as much a touchstone for the 1990s as Peter Brook’s legendary 1970 Royal Shakespeare Company staging, with trapezes and acrobats, was for its time.

″There is no more brilliantly imaginative production in town,″ Benedict Nightingale in The Times of London wrote of Lepage’s production, which opened July 9 at the Royal National Theater’s Olivier auditorium. The Guardian’s Michael Billington, though, derided the staging as ″perverse, leaden, humorless.″

While too many contemporary productions of Shakespeare merely trot out the verse, Lepage reimagines the play as a pictorially stunning sexual nightmare from which the characters emerge refreshed, and cleansed.

Shakespeare’s four lovers first appear nestled together on a bed. They awake in designer Michael Levine’s massive mudbath, in which they slosh and slide for the next 3 1/2 hours. (Plastic ponchos are provided for the first few rows of the audience to protect against flying muck.)

Titania (Sally Dexter), the Queen of the Night, hangs upside down for 13 minutes, a bat-like image of otherworldly allure.

Puck, Oberon’s sprite, is played by a French-Canadian contortionist, Angela Laurier, who is capable of wrapping her feet behind her head and scuttling, crab-like, across the stage.

The aim, says the director, is to reinvent a play which all too often is embalmed by tradition.

″You have to reappropriate a piece and give a lot of latitude to the actors to do what they want with it,″ Lepage, a soft-spoken 34-year-old, said in lightly accented English reflecting his Quebecois upbringing in Francophone Canada.

″There’s too much freedom in Shakespeare for people to handle so they put rules on him. They say, ‘This is how it’s done; this is what it means.’ But there’s no intention on the part of Shakespeare to be said in a certain way. There are no rules, only tricks to help you through it.″

The cast includes Jeffery Kissoon, from Peter Brook’s epic ″Mahabharata,″ as Oberon, the king of the fairies; and film actor Rupert Graves (″Maurice,″ ″Where Angels Fear to Tread″) as the smitten courtier, Lysander.

Lepage launched a workshop of this production at the National Theater’s Studio annex last December, saving any investigation of Shakespeare’s 1604 text until the end.

″Before that, we worked with people’s dreams, and recurrences and drawings, so people had the impression they were playing; they were actually having fun,″ said Lepage.

″At the end, we read ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ and there it was: full of water and mud and staircases and upside down forests, and all sorts of things that came from the dreams.″

While word is some cast members aren’t happy with the changes in temperature, and at least one is said to be suffering athlete’s foot, Dexter said the director made the hardship worth it.

″Robert is very permissive in the best sense of the word. He makes you feel you’re allowed to try anything so it’s very creative,″ she said. And what of the mud and the water? ″I find it very liberating.″

It helps to have a design as extraordinary as the one on the Olivier’s thrust stage, where ″A Midsummer Night’s Dream″ runs in repertory at least through next May.

The mud bath aside, the spare set relies on shimmering effects of light and shadow. These are brilliantly created by Jean Kalman of France, who also lit the National production of ″Richard III″ with Sir Ian McKellen now touring the United States.

At one moment, a light bulb is unscrewed and milk pours out; at another, the rear walls of the stage reveal a curtain of water which washes the mud from actors.

How is the cast coping?

″Any sort of discomfort is compensated for by the fact that it’s such a spectacle,″ said Annie Gosney, the theater’s production manager.

She said the ″mud″ is an oil-drilling lubricant called Bentonite: ″It’s totally inert and won’t cause growth.″

The showers, she added, are unheated. ″It’s freezing cold. When the lovers go into the showers and scream, that’s legitimate.″

Lepage will next be seen in New York Dec. 8-12 when the Brooklyn Academy of Music presents his one-man show, ″Needles and Opium.″

End Adv PM Tuesday Aug. 11