4 MAY 2002, Page 50

Theatre 2

Henry V (Shaw) A Midsummer Night's Dream (Barbican) The Winter's Tale (Roundhouse) Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (Palladium) Macbeth (Arcola)

Stuck into Shakespeare

Toby Young

It was Shakespeare's birthday last week — he's 438 — and I decided to celebrate by going to see the British Touring Shakespeare's production of Henry V. If only I'd seen the programme notes beforehand. It's here that the director, a 25-year-old expublic schoolboy called Miles Gregory, announces his intention to 'reclaim the play from the nationalist brigade'. Oh no, I thought, I'm going to have to sit through a production of Henry V directed by a May Day protester.

I'm afraid this young rebel is tilting at windmills. Henry V has long been the property of left-wing trustafarian types who regard patriotism as indistinguishable from out-and-out racism. If only Miles Gregory had decided to reclaim the play on behalf of the nationalist brigade — now that would have been something to see. As it is, his production is a dreary, lacklustre affair that depicts Henry as a sadistic little martinet. Only Lucia Latimer as Katherine saved the evening from being a total wash-out.

Further on in the programme notes, Gregory announces that he's 'bum-numbingly bored' by 'the established theatre's stiflingly reverent treatment of Shakespeare's texts'. Clearly, Gregory hasn't paid a visit to Stratford recently. The notion that the RSC — or the National or, indeed, any established company — occupies itself with putting on conventional productions of Shakespeare's plays is completely absurd. In Stratford, the only people in Elizabethan costume are the tour guides.

There are three RSC productions of Shakespeare's plays on in London at the moment: The Winter's Tale, The Tempest and A Midsummer Night's Dream. I haven't seen The Tempest — the press night isn't until next week — but the other two are about as far from conventional as it's possible to be.

Richard Jones's production of the Dream got poor reviews when, it opened in Stratford last February and it's not hard to see why. The critics were expecting a crowdpleasing summer blockbuster and instead Jones has delivered something weird and experimental. The hair, make-up and costumes look as though they've been imported straight from Alexander McQueen's latest show in Paris and sets resemble paintings by Joan Miro (only in black and white). Richard Jones is better known as an opera director and you half-expect the cast to break into song at any moment. But I have to confess I quite enjoyed it. The whole production is infused with a youthful, sexed-up energy and I left the theatre feeling pleasantly refreshed. The performances vary enormously, but Tim McMullan's Oberon is pitch perfect. It's worth seeing just for him.

The Winter's Tale, by contrast, is a mess. Directed by Matthew Warchus, it's set in America in the 1940s, with the King of Sicilia as a mafia don and the Old Shepherd as the leader of a hillbilly clan. The main reason it doesn't work is because the vast majority of the cast can't do American accents. Perhaps I'm more of a stickler about this than most because I've spent about a third of my adult life in the States, but Douglas Hodge's attempts to make Leontes sound like Marlon Brando rendered everything he said unintelligible. I've no objection to setting The Winter's Tale in America, but the performers should no more attempt to do American accents than the cast of Hamlet should try and do Danish ones.

I was in a particularly uncharitable mood when I saw it because when I turned up I was initially refused entry. This wouldn't have been so had were it not for the fact that I was with my wife and her parents. I'd arranged to get four tickets through the RSC press office — I was intending to pay for two of them — but the man at the box office told me he knew nothing about it. It was only after I'd kicked up an almighty fuss that I was admitted into what was a virtually empty theatre.

I wanted to write a piece linking this cock-up to Adrian Noble's leave-ofabsence as artistic director of the RSC — a bit far-fetched, I'll grant you — and review The Winter's Tale alongside Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the play Noble took time out to direct. But events have rather overtaken me. In any case, it's hard to work up much of a rage against a musical about a flying car. It's a bland, soulless affair, lacking all the charm of the original, but my six-yearold sister loved it and it's aimed at her, not me. Sitting there, arms-folded, as everyone around me gurgled with pleasure, I felt like the Child-Catcher.

However, let me end on a positive note. The production of Macbeth that's just opened at the Arcola Theatre in Stoke Newington is fantastic. I've seen five RSC productions in the past six months, but this is better than the lot of them. It's difficult to imagine a less pretentious version of the play. Everything is geared to telling the story as simply and powerfully as possible. Jack Shepherd is marvellous as the equivocating, murdering Scotsman, but the real star of the show is Amanda Boxer. Not even Cherie Blair could give a more convincing performance as Lady Macbeth.