March 11, 2007 3:35 pm

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Théâtre MC93 Bobigny, Paris

“If I say how much I hate this, I’ll be taken as a po-faced English person unable to take a joke”. Not my words – though they could be – but those of Puck, who steps regularly outside the text to comment archly in English on this production being frightfully French and experimental. Tongue in cheek, geddit?

Jean-Michel Rabeux’s radical productions and uncompromising treatment of blood/nudity on stage often get labelled as provocative, which makes his choice of this comedy for his first Shakespeare production (he’s 58) all the more intriguing. Until, that is, you see his overtly political interpretation, in which everything is fair game: abusive power structures, romantic and gender conventions, the inherently absurd storyline, jolting anachronisms (the adaptation is his own).

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Rabeux brutally levels down the rigid hierarchy of the court, the fairy kingdom and the rustics to expose the common denominator of lust. For dream, read erotic fantasy surfacing in the phallic forest, where the subconscious lets rip.

Hardly anyone is the sex they’re supposed to be. Costumes and set are a 1970s kitschfest of cross- dressing, bondage gear and mirrors. Theseus sprawls like a jaded lounge lizard, an obese (female) Oberon bulges out of a trolley wheeled by withered fairies in silver lamé. The rustics are ageing transvestite schoolgirls. Plenty of visual pizazz, high-octane effects, youth appeal. But also a seeping sense of déjà vu.

The actors give their all and the nicely characterised rustics serve up delicious comedy. But the conceptual treatment becomes an end in itself, straitjacketing the poetry and the cast.

Interrupting the action for Puck’s ironic commentaries is a disaster. If it’s po-faced not to giggle at long-winded asides that include toe- curling banalities such as “They make me say this, you know . . . ”, “It was a Frenchman who wrote this . . . ” and “actually I like the French”, I plead guilty.
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