FESTIVAL Altered States Watermans Arts Centre, Brentford

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The Independent Culture
The title of Britain's first festival of Baltic theatre smacks of armchair tourism. Altered States is a showcase for four works hatched since Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania emerged from Soviet confinement five years ago. An invitation to compare and contrast, to see what independence has done for each and buy a souvenir on the way out.

But on the strength of the first two pieces last week, from Estonia, it's clear that the participants are resistant to zoological categorisation. The three neighbours are divided by language and culture but the directors share a common denominator. They are not interested in exploring their countries' newly disencumbered identity - neither the horrors of the free market nor the nightmare of occupations past. Theatre may have taken a knock as audiences, no longer hungry for political subtext, got on with business, but the work shown here is confident in its abstention from contemporary reflection.

True, for the first few minutes of Estonian Games - Wedding, things seemed a little too quaint. Seven elderly women in traditional red and purple costume did a reverse shuffle through a large backdrop against which a computer game, being played "live" by a man in a dinner jacket, was projected. The women warbled runic chants to an ambient backing track and did little dances. But the spectacle acquired a complexity through the steady drip of simple decisions being taken on the screen. The computer operator's response to witty prompts in English propelled characters on and off the stage and pushed the fledgling country towards independence, as a clock counted down, 10 years per minute, from AD 1000. What you were left with was not cloying heritage, but an image of human dignity in the face of relentless change, a dignity achieved through ritualistic patterns that were added to, rather than upstaged by, the computer.

Similarly, the second piece, Epp Pillarpart's Pottery, directed by Priit Pedajas, utilised folk material without swamping us in it. The language barrier was immovable, but comic acting kept the simple storyline turning: two pottery workers fall in love with the wife of their deceased boss and fight for her hand, their pent-up desires acted out on the moist clay. After the performance, they were selling as-seen-on-stage pots. It was a measure of the show's success that the audience was more interested in the director than in the manhandled earthenware.

To Sat. Watermans Arts Centre, Brentford (0181-568 1176)