A Duchess still, but not moving

THEATRE

FROM THE opening moment of The Duchess of Malfi, when someone literally lifts the curtain on the production to reveal the court standing in statuesque lines, wearing an elegant mix of Edwardian and modern dress, you sense you are watching something that has been very carefully thought through and designed. Like the new Audi, say. Vorsprung durch Technik.

The last Duchess of Malfi, with Juliet Stevenson at Greenwich, was an unstable affair, full of surprising and affecting moments. By contrast Cheek By Jowl's new and internationally acclaimed Malfi shimmers with polish. We are as aware of the theatrical language in use as we are of the Jacobean one spoken: characters remain on stage when they are not in scenes, or enter through the auditorium, or walk through scenes that they do not appear in, or stay on stage after they have died. One character can even fatally stab another while standing nowhere near him. No one could deny that it is powerfully conceived, lucid and sexy. But in this brittle, glamorous world, Webster's tragedy emerges as something cool, artful and slow.

This Malfi arrives for a four-week London residency in the middle of a British Council tour. Bucharest one week, Blackpool the next, New York the week after that: it's no wonder that it looks as if it travels with hand luggage only. There are minimum props (whisky decanter, attache case) and minimum sets (curtains). While it would seem natural to see a British cast in Bogota, Valletta or Ljubljana performing Jacobean tragedy with curtains and a few chairs, the studio-feel sits a little meanly in the West End.

The sense of this Malfi as something portable and hermetically sealed goes deeper still. There's a key moment when the Duchess kisses a hand, remarks on how cold it is, and then realises the hand is a severed one. Juliet Stevenson made the discovery in the dark, and as she shrieked, we shared her horror. When Anastasia Hille receives the severed object, we see the hand clearly, we see her fondle it, kiss it, stroke it, and we wait and wait thinking, surely she knows she's got dead flesh in her hands; then at last she screams. Shortly after, she laughs and drops it in a wastepaper bin.

It's one of a number of smart effects. Hille says goodbye to her three children - smoking a herbal cigarette, incidentally, while she does so - with the absent-minded air of someone forgetting to tip a waiter. When Ferdinand bites one of the courtiers' ears, the courtiers circle round like a herd, while the Cardinal stands centre stage showily stroking the cover of his prayer book. The lack of spontaneous behaviour dulls the scene which reeks of the rehearsal room. This production catches its own reflection.

The narcissism gives it a topical edge. Hille's Duchess is a startling, imperious figure in a black velvet cloak, with a tiara on her blonde hair, her red lipstick standing out from her pale angular face. She wrings her hands, lets out taut, quivering smiles and speaks, in a breathy, reedy voice, of "the misery of us, that are born great". She rolls down an elbow- length white glove to prove that underneath this is "flesh and blood". Bulimia, Susie Orbach and sly interviews with Panorama seem just round the corner.

Most of the performances have this precision. George Anton plays the malcontent Bosola with a scarred face and black eye-patch. He leans against the edge of the stage, and in a soft, deadpan voice clearly enunci-ates his soliloquies. It comes over as another effect. It's as if the cast, overawed by Cheek by Jowl's reputation, offer us carefully pitched characterisations that never escape the strong vision imposed by their director, Declan Donnellan and designer, Nick Ormerod.

The last time I saw Peter Pan (more than 20 years ago) it was unmistakeably a play about a small boy who didn't want to grow up. Seeing Matthew Warchus's flamboyant new production in Leeds, Peter Pan seems equally unmistakeably to be about children's special capacity for belief. As such, it's a metaphor for theatre. Only believe, and then you can fly.

That said, you don't need a tremendous amount of imagination to follow this Peter Pan because Warchus, and his excellent designer Rob Howell, do most of the imagining for us. There are scenes in this production which, for fluidity, spectacle and stagecraft, would serve as handy audition pieces when Sir Cameron or Sir Andrew consider directors and designers for their next musicals. The first is when the nursery walls slide away and Peter and the three little Darlings fly off into a starry night that appears to encompass half the theatre. Then there's a spectacular undulating crocodile, a highly effective river composed of a stream of thousands of large ping-pong balls, and the huge prow of a ship emerging out of the misty gloomy sea. It's a shame the short final scenes involve clunky scene-changes quite at odds with the bravura staging that precedes them.

David Bamber is a ripe, self-dramatising Captain Hook, more comic than frightening, and John Padden a puckish, otherworldly Peter. But in this Peter Pan it's what Warchus and Howell show us on the wondrous journey from the nursery to Neverland that makes it a pretty big adventure.

This year Empty Space celebrates 10 years as a small-scale touring company with a play that marks the centenary of the National Trust. Robin Brooks's thoughtful play threads together the lives of John Ruskin and Octavia Hill and in this world of unconsummated thwarted relationships the only thing the principal characters can give birth to is a national institution that today has 2.2 million members. Brooks traces the twin emotional and intellectual journeys in short, episodic scenes which director Andrew Holmes sets sparely against a fiery Turneresque backdrop. Fav'rite Nation is a sincere, persuasive reminder that the Trust was founded out of a sense of social injustice. Not in a fit of nostalgia.

'Malfi': Wyndhams, WC2 (0171 369 1746), to 27 Jan. 'Peter Pan': West Yorks Playhouse (0113 244 2111), to 3 Feb. 'Nation': Lyric, W6 (0181 741 2311), to 20 Jan.

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