Arts: Wanted for brilliance, dead or alive

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The Independent Culture
SIMON CALLOW, in a new book about his passionate Platonic love affair with the agent and monstre sacre, Peggy Ramsay, reveals that the couple spent a lot of time gassing to each other on the phone during his periods offstage in his dressing room when he was in rep at the National. If he'd ever appeared in a production by Declan Donnellan, these telephonic outpourings would have been drastically reduced. Even when they have been gorily bumped off, Donnellan loves to keep characters onstage, moving around in revealing relation to their survivors. He's a master at creating, through his casts, a constantly shifting diagram of the psychological forces operating at any one point.

This talent strikes with a particular vividness now in his magnificently lucid and passionate modern-dress staging, with French-speaking actors, of Corneille's 1636 masterpiece Le Cid. Played on a bare wooden floor and against planked walls where the silhouettes literally heighten one's sense of the dramatic conflicts, this is the first staging I have seen of this tricky play where I haven't felt tempted to snort with derision at the intricate rigidities of the Spanish honour code.

The potential tragedy is triggered by an insulting slap across the face administered by a military hero (the alarmingly virile Michel Baumann) to a more successful rival for the King's favours. It's characteristic that the shock of that smack is intensified here by having it coincide with a sudden outbreak of polite applause for a guitar concert just ending at Court. It's also typical that the resulting duel is staged with the two stripped-to-the-waist combatants aiming sword thrusts at each other, long-distance, from diagonally opposite extremes of the set. Space and time are collapsed: so characters who, in other locations, are agonising about the moral and amatory consequences of such a fight, seem to be physically encircled by it.

This kind of psychic geometry brilliantly clarifies the appalling strain on William Nadylam's useful, sensitive Don Rodrigue, pushed into reluctant heroism by his bellicose crippled father (Philippe Blancher) and landed in the cruelly invidious position of being the murderer of his fiancee's father. The production brings out the more than faintly sub-currents of the honour code: in the stage world Donnellan creates, a dead father can continue to spy on his unwitting half-naked daughter (Sarah Karbasnikoff) and zip her into her mourning outfit, constantly keeping up the pressure on her to put his memory before all else. Likewise, an obsessed Infanta (Sandrine Attard) can strip the man of her dreams in fantasy and slip herself into his military tunic.

The embarrassment of the happy ending is transcended by showing (a) that it is also embarrassing to the characters and (b) that it isn't all that happy. One of the French reviews was headlined "Wonderful!" Let's go for the bilingual approach and just say "Formidable!".

Paul Taylor

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