Royal National Theatre (Olivier), London SE1
Opened 9 July, 1992

Peter Brook wrestles Ken Russell in a dark, bonkers circus version of Chariots Of Fire – and that's just one specific moment, about 45 minutes into Robert Lepage's incredible revivification of the Shakespeare play most frequently smothered in blancmange. The Québecois wizard uses mud instead: the Olivier stage is utterly bare except for a couple of tons of the stuff and a boggy pool.

A bedstead, mattress and a few chairs become a forest, a palace, a labyrinth of confusions overseen by a contorting, acrobatic Puck who shows a predilection for tucking his legs over his shoulders and scuttling crab-like – Angela Laurier's physical performance has to be seen to be disbelieved. Like a number of the cast, she lacks the acting strength to do justice to her lines: of the lovers, only Rudi Davies as Helena begins to inhabit her character, and as Bottom Timothy Spall alternately diverts when he brings forth another comic quirk and infuriates when he uses it for the fifteenth time running, usually at the expense of the text. (He's in danger, I think, of becoming a verb – to spall: not just to ham but to go the whole hog.)

This, though, is not a production of actorliness or nuance. Its revelations are broad, not least that such a single, minimal design can truly liberate rather than constrain the fighting and fucking, acrobatics and aquaplaning that go on in such a turbulent night. Certain touches strike like a diamond between the eyes: the onstage showers for the lovers to wash off the mire of chaos in a golden morning when all is resolved; Puck's high-speed aerial rope-twirl when "put[ting] a girdle round about the earth"; Lepage's self-parody with the mechanicals' little, dripping, bedstead-theatre and kitchen-utensil gamelan (echoing the marvellous chimes of the thousand tinkling instruments in the musicians' galleries).

His dirty, sexy, violent and unique production will alienate a number of people whose idea of dressing up for the theatre doesn't include a complimentary waterproof cape if you're in the first two rows of the audience. So be it. The rest of us cannot afford to miss it.

Written for City Limits magazine.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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