Arts: Theatre: Empty posturing, not provocative drama

Dirty Work Ica Playboy Young Vic Studio Thirteenth Night Southwark Playhouse London
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The Independent Culture
IF THEY could mass-produce their work, Forced Entertainment could probably sell their shows abroad as instruments of torture. This Sheffield- based company has become expert in subjecting audiences to carefully engineered acts of tedium, which it passes off as provocative experiments. "All year we've been working on the notion of an absent show," they explain in the programme to Dirty Work. "A performance that never really takes place." In the process, they have succeeded in reinventing the wheel and then removing its spokes.

Dirty Work takes the conventional form of a story-telling session, but there is no narrative thread. A fantastical play is described, consisting of a long list of incongruous scenes: disasters, suicides, wars, circus stunts, romances - the writer, Tim Etchells, has put a lyrical girdle round the earth. Seated on a makeshift proscenium stage, a man (Robin Arthur) and a woman (Cathy Naden), talk at us in an earnest monotone while behind them another woman (Claire Marshall) operates the sound, a loop of melancholy piano music. Some of the lines are intriguing, some mildly amusing, but the portentous tone, repetitive structure and visual austerity make every detail blur into the same grinding whole. That, presumably, is partly the point (all the world's reducible to a soundbite), but it's as banal as it is insupportable.

Desperate Optimists' Play-boy, a two-hander boasting the added musings of video-taped members of the public, bears certain similarities to Dirty Work in its impassive refusal to go easy on the audience. A skittish, gunslinging reflection on the controversial impact of JM Synge's The Playboy of the Western World, at one point it, too, describes a performance (a silent one: the Abbey Theatre's attempt to prevent the stage being mobbed). Here, though, the decision to present everything at one remove is relatively unforced, conveying the detachment of the original, and obliquely suggesting our ambivalence towards violence.

For those seeking more cogent provocation, there's Thirteenth Night, which, as its author Howard Brenton put it, "plays ducks and drakes with the plot of Macbeth". Premiered by the RSC in 1981, it was delivered as the dramatisation of "an internal row" within the Labour Party. Knocked unconscious during a scuffle with Fascists, the ruthless idealist Jack Beatty's dream of a truly Marxist government of Great Britain soon turns tyrannical. Sarah Wooley's well-executed revival reminds you how witty Brenton can be. Beatty's plight crystallises a current anguish: disillusionment with compromised socialism and cynicism about there ever being a "new social justice". It's a dirty business, party politics, but somebody's got to write about it; thank goodness Brenton did.

Dominic Cavendish

`Dirty Work' ICA, London SW1 (0171-930 3647) to Sat; `Playboy' Young Vic Studio, London SE1 (0171-928 6363) to Sat; `Thirteenth Night' Southwark Playhouse, London SE1 (0171-620 3494)