Arts: Theatre: Tales of passion, obsession and tragic isolation

India Song/ Feuergesicht (Fireface) King's Theatre/Royal Lyceum Edinburgh London
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The Independent Culture
MARGUERITE DURAS, the author of India Song, consistently polarises opinions. You may find the world she creates rather heat-oppressed and sensually charged, full of doomed passion and fatalistic passivity, or it may seem ludicrously attenuated and overblown, striving for mythic or emblematic effect from excessively rarefied ingredients.

To an extent, Dutch director Ivo Van Hove addresses both views in this penultimate production of the Edinburgh International Festival theatre programme, performed in English by his Het Zuidelijk Toneel Ensemble. He extends the apron at the King's while seating some of the audience on black-cushioned sofas and bathing the action in unforgiving sodium light. All this challenges the conjuring power of Duras's language, heard both in the play's actual text, consisting of five unseen voices commenting on events on stage, and the elaborate stage directions which he also incorporates through voiceover.

Duras's descriptions of a colonial embassy in 1930s Calcutta - a setting that immediately establishes the contrast of luxury enclosed by squalor - are projected on to a largely bare stage, their ability to work on our imagination assisted only by the periodic emanation of smells such as manure, citronella, incense and Van Hove's use of music, both Western and Indian.

The play tells the story of a disgraced vice-consul's obsessive, impossible love for the French ambassador's wife, with the five voices presented as recalling the tragedy at some later date. The separation, for the most part, of the actors from the dialogue seems intended to imply their powerlessness in the face of larger, destructive forces - whether the fatal passion kindled by a single glance, or the nature of India itself.

As an exercise in bravura, theatrical technique and imagination, the production is both impressive, and intriguing. In recreating the atmosphere of Duras's world, however, it succeeds rather too well.

One of the wunderkind playwrights currently carrying all before them on the German theatre scene, 24-year-old Marius von Mayenburg, depicts similarly hermetic milieux in Feuergesicht - both in the unfathomable mind of adolescent psychopath Kurt, and the conventional domesticity which his parents are desperate to maintain.

Directed with superb intensity and precision by Thomas Ostermeier, this production by Hamburg's Deutsches Schauspielhaus constantly shifts perspective between grubbily graphic naturalism, distilled economy, and subtle symbolism, as the facade of happy family life gives way to incest, arson and murder. The drama's central relationship, between Kurt and his precociously world- weary sister Olga, is cunningly counterpoised with that between their parents, as the latter cling to their roles as liberal, understanding parents, an increasingly tattered guise which conceals less and less effectively both the emotional vacuum of their life together and their wilful denial of what's happening to their children.

It's Kurt and Olga's horror at this picture of what lies before them which seems to trigger their actions, along with Kurt's jealousy of Olga's sexual experiments with boyfriend, Paul. All five actors give performances of concentrated, sharply individualised complexity.

Sue Wilson

Both runs end tonight. Booking: 0131-473 2000

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