Indian summer

Opera - Peter Conrad enjoys Baz Luhrmann's attempts to spice up Shakespeare's comedy

Peter Pan runs genteelly amok in Kensington Gardens, but are there fairies in the Australian bush? Baz Luhrmann, directing Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream for Opera Australia, despaired of discovering elves, sylphs and gossamer wraiths in a country whose matted, prickly undergrowth is populated by dingos, goannas, bull ants and feral cats. In search of exoticism, he wandered off once more on the hippy trail and immersed himself in the festive squalor and spicy chaos of India. The choice of destination was not arbitrary, since Shakespeare's plot begins from Oberon's jealous abduction of the Indian princeling who is Tytania's toyboy. Luhrmann's production of the opera is set at a hill station during the last days of the raj in 1923, where colonial administrators in jodhpurs cavort with the elastic-limbed, bejewelled natives; to prepare us for the sensual riot ahead, the Sydney Opera House is infused with the scent of sandalwood oil, mind-bending incense and curry powder.

Britten's orchestra, squeezed into sweaty military uniforms, plays on stage in a tiered bandstand. But this imported gazebo, with ceremonial balconies on which the overdressed imperial commanders parade, cannot resist the entanglements of the jungly, swampy subcontinent. Branches strangle its turret, providing cover for a Puck who wears purple body paint; in its basement is a watery grotto where Tytania, gliding on a barge along a sacred river with votive candles glimmering on its banks, beds down first with the ephebic, under-age prince and then - after Puck plays his trick on Bottom - with an ithyphallic donkey.

For the pederastic Britten, the little prince was the mute, compliant object of desire. In Luhrmann's view, the prize erotic exhibit is Bottom's asinine penis, which emerges from a shaggy thicket of fur and stands to bristling attention. During the rehearsal of the play, Thisbe looks at it and faints, while Tytania gasps in greedy admiration. In David Lean's film of E M Forster's A Passage to India, the prim Adela Quested strays into the jungle and stares at a ruined temple where carved deities copulate while monkeys gibber and poke their rosy bums in the air. Luhrmann's India is equally unbridled. Helena, pursuing Demetrius, offers him her riding crop and begs him to abuse her; flustered, he refuses, though he later sheds his shirt and drags her into the shrubbery.

In the play staged for Theseus's wedding, the lion escapes and humps Thisbe, who has earlier experimented with sucking Snout's tap, which protrudes through the wall at groin level. When the opera was first performed in Aldeburgh in 1960, a transvestite Peter Pears played Thisbe and delivered a catty parody of Joan Sutherland deliriously emoting in the mad scene from Lucia di Lammermoor, which she had sung at Covent Garden the previous year. Such snideness is hardly permissible in Sydney, where Dame Joan is venerated as the most matronly of earth mothers, so Luhrmann treats the farce as a rorty heterosexual romp.

In the last act of Shakespeare's play and Britten's opera, Theseus and Hippolyta arrive to celebrate a marriage that commemorates the warrior's victory over the Amazons and his capture of their queen. Because the ruling couple appear so belatedly, no one ever notices that this is a comedy in which personal fates depend on the edicts of those in power.

Luhrmann, however, emphasises the political agenda. The rude mechanicals begin as a motley gang of conscripts from It Ain't Half Hot, Mum, who soon succumb to the musky, sensual heat of India. The raj, too, wilts as we watch, and Australia is able to gloat and grin as the British empire collapses.

Children loyally wave Union Jacks after Theseus's wedding, but in the ensuing confusion - which resembles the monsoonal deluge where all the characters are equalised at the end of Forster's novel - the imperial flags are torn down and, among showers of petals and a fizzy firework display, Oberon and Tytania assume control of their liberated country. It's a pity that the timetable for constitutional change in Australia has not kept up with Luhrmann's predictions.

Best of the singers is the superb New Zealand baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes as Demetrius. Almost as impressive, Tyler Coppin plays Puck as a wildly energetic dervish. Coppin - an American who manages to sing, dance and act all at once - comes to the assignment after a stint as the sleazy master of ceremonies in Cabaret, and that experience enables him to point up the character's prurience and his slippery sexual ambiguity. Britten, who thought of Puck as a fluting choirboy with his testicles still in a delicious state of suspension, would no doubt have hated his performance. But classics are works that outlive their creators and continue to generate new, unexpected meanings: in Sydney, A Midsummer Night's Dream has acclimatised to the tropics and gone noisily native.

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