Arts: No sets please, we're Scottish

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EXCEPT IN Verona, you can no longer do Aida as a grand spectacular. That kind of production is a cliche, and it is too expensive. In Antony McDonald's new production of Aida, seen initially at Edinburgh's Festival Theatre, McDonald said he was "trying to redress the balance towards the personal".

Thus the sets, designed by McDonald himself and George Souglides, hardly existed; just a few chairs and some strips of lighting. The costumes were dowdy, suggesting no particular period. Instead of having colour-coded Ethiopians - evidently not politically correct - everyone looked pale, as though they had forgotten stage make-up.

But unfortunately, this production descended continually until it became risible.

Aida arrived in Act I, apparently, by lift. Scene II ("the temple of Vulcan") had a row of men facing a wall, apparently making use of a huge urinal, and its ballet seemed to consist of conjuring tricks suitable for a children's party. In Act II the cast carried bits of a dismantled car across the stage, and the women semaphored as though giving the odds at a racecourse. Amneris's attendants came on as a women's choral society, apparently singing from scores which turned out to be illustrated magazines.

People sniggered at all of this. McDonald did not care. He apparently wanted to make the public guess at his symbolic meaning, and then to baffle them. He had no meaning. It was an immense postmodern double-bluff.

The Grand March gave it away. Instead of pomp and ceremony, the Egyptian women sat on Persian mats and produced bananas out of picnic boxes, while the trumpeters, wearing dark glasses like mafiosi, sat on chairs and blasted.

McDonald's plan to reduce the drama to a personal level was scuppered by an ill-matched pair of lovers. Neither had any charm; Lada Biriucov, in the title role, produced a thick tone of immense power, but without any sensuality or refinement. As an actor she was a classic barnstormer, hunching her shoulders, making two fists and closing her eyes to hurl misery and passion into the ether. Vladimir Kuzmenko as Radames, on the other hand, did not act at all. Vocally he sounded dry, and he just stood while Aida tore and pushed at him. You sympathised with her.

In any case, the personal drama of Aida is a drama of stock characters and stock situations. With its religious choruses spoilt by visual wisecracks, its splendour reduced to game-playing and its political dimension to Lilliput, there are only a few exquisite arias and ensembles left. These, alas, had limited effect.

There was, however, a magnificent Amneris (Rosalind Plowright), fluent, vocally abundant and sharply characterised. The Amonasro (Vladimir Redkin) was also effective; his dramatic voice and spacious acting had real credibility. Michail Ryssov was an impressive Ramfis, and Stafford Dean a reedy King. Emmanuel Joel conducted rather ineffectually, his tempos often not convincing either orchestra or audience.

Raymond Monelle

Glasgow Theatre Royal (0141-332 9000) tonight, Thurs, 29 May, 3, 8, 12 June; Edinburgh Festival Theatre (0131-529 6000)16, 18 June