Albee's back; and bleak and oblique as ever

The Play about the Baby Almeida Hamlet Barbican Full Gallop Hampstead

Two years ago at the Almeida, Howard Davies directed Diana Rigg and David Suchet in Edward Albee's Sixties classic Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? This week at the same venue he directs the world premiere of Albee's latest, The Play about the Baby.

It isn't just the venue that we're revisiting. Strip George, Martha, Nick and Honey of their names and you are left with "Man", "Woman", "Boy", "Girl". Boil the plot down and you have 1) a middle-aged couple teasing and persecuting a young couple; and 2) a phantom child.

Thirty-six years on, it looks as if Virginia Woolf has has produced a baby of its own. This is a play whose closest link to a recognisable reality is another play by the same author. Describing the plot itself is hazardous. A young couple (Zoe Waites and Rupert Penry-Jones) appear to have a baby. She feeds and settles "it". He speaks of an injury. They go off and make love.

Alan Howard wanders in: he could be a stand-up, or our host for the evening, and offers up wry remarks about tricks of the mind. He makes way for Frances de la Tour. She explains she isn't an actress and tells an anecdote about failing to interview a writer. These two figures - comic and sinister - invade the young couple's world. Are they married? What is their connection with the young couple? As Act One closes, they tell the young couple, with a nightmare insouciance, that "we've come to take the baby."

After the interval, Alan Howard asks if we had a good intermission and sympathises with the women in the audience about the inadequate size of the ladies' loos. He dismisses Frances de la Tour's story of an artist who killed himself for her ("no-one talks like that") and tells Zoe Waites that Penry-Jones doesn't love her because he's gay. Finally the young couple are forced to admit, in a horrific image where the baby's blanket is unfurled as they are shaking the grass off a picnic rug, that baby doesn't exist.

This is about as open-ended as a play can be. You can make all kinds of connections. The force of The Play about the Baby - which lingers and gnaws like a bad dream - lies in its fierce suspicion of two types of fictions. Albee seems to suggest we dignify family relations. The young married couple don't know each other. The child isn't "theirs". It's an expression of their need. The other type of fiction is theatrical illusions: "I love that speech," says Alan Howard, shortly before repeating it. "You had me standing out here," says la Tour, when Howard returns, "vamping away". The assault on theatre conventions is bracingly theatrical.

The Play about the Baby is bleak and oblique and the more you pin down the obliqueness, the bleaker it appears. What's never in doubt is its fascination as a piece of theatre. Howard Davies's cast are first rate. Alan Howard is richly idiosyncratic, blinking and squeezing the bridge of his nose, and picking up stray thoughts as if with a pair of tweezers to the audience. Frances de la Tour has a mischievous ease, mocking the audience and herself, with radiant winks, sly grins and - at one moment - breaking into sign language. But even if you speak that, the play would have been no more comprehensible.

In the Japanese director Yukio Ninagawa's production of Hamlet, which visited the Barbican for eight performances, the play doesn't hurry past. With Ninagawa, scenes are closer to chapters. In between, we get blackouts and scene changes with urgent synthesised piano music from Yasuhiro Kasamatsu. Then the music stops abruptly, we hear the harsh drag of curtains on rails, watch a rapid series of lighting cues, and we're there.

This decisive sense of form means that three hours of Shakespeare in Japanese without subtitles emerges as clearer than many productions in English. Ninagawa displays scenes. Everyone has a physical presence on- stage; hierarchies are defined through spatial relationships, the strands of the narrative are delineated with a painter's eye. Everyone knows where they are in this world: including the audience.

The poise is matched by a controlled swagger. Some of the biggest gestures are the simplest. The tiny gravedigger Isamu Shimizu can nonchalantly kick the skull back into the grave as if it's a football. Hiroyuki Sanada's Hamlet is the best swordsman I've seen play Hamlet (his years in action movies pay off). Equally memorable is the way he blows out the candles that light the performance of "The Mousetrap" with his cloak. Minutes later he enfolds the kneeling Gertrude (Mariko Kaga) with the same black cloak so that only their two heads are visible. This tension between extremes is illustrated by the cast leaving Hamlet alone on stage and appearing to return to their dressing rooms. While Hamlet berates himself ("O what a rogue and peasant slave" etc) his isolation is underlined by dimly-lit actors - supposedly off-stage - moving about in their dressing rooms. Unbeatable.

It can't be long before there is a one-woman show about Tina Brown. This week there's one about Diana Vreeland, the former editor-in-chief of Vogue. If you want to visualise Full Gallop then think red. Or lots of reds: red door, red carpet, red vase, red curtains, red sofa, red scarf, red fingernails, red lipstick, and masses and masses of rouge. Tribal chieftains have gone into battle wearing less make-up.

I always worry with one-person shows that we're going to spend the evening listening to someone talking to friends on the phone. We have a few calls, the front door rings, and there's lots of buzzing of the maid on the intercom. What's very engaging about Mary Louise Wilson's emphatic, flamboyant performance is the tone she finds for addressing the audience. She pronounces on everything from Hitler's moustache ("just wrong") to living abroad ("the best thing about my life in London was Paris"). Vreeland, it seems, fortuitously for Wilson, talked to everyone as if they were an audience.

Mark Hampton and Wilson's script picks the moment when Vreeland has been fired after 30 years on Vogue, there's a bitchy piece in the New York Post and no food in the kitchen for tonight's dinner party. There's a fair amount of name-dropping about the Duke of Windsor, Nijinsky, Chanel and so on. We survive this because Vreeland has a wonderfully distinctive take on the world: her passion for colour and line and never doing things first. She has a look. She has an outlook too.

`The Play About The Baby': Almeida, N1 (0171 359 4404), to 10 Oct. `Full Gallop': Hampstead, NW3 (0171 722 9301), to 26 Sept.

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