Forget safe bets, prepare for Sam's shock treatment

There's a risk-taking season of Sam Shepard plays in Battersea. Robert Hanks reviews 'States of Shock', while Dominic Cavendish tackles the contrasting 'Suicide in B Flat' and 'A Lie of the Mind'
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The Independent Culture
For about two seconds at the very beginning of States of Shock, when you see a couple seated together alone in a diner, it crosses your mind that we could be in for a night of Edward Hopper-style social realism. Then the lights black out and the drums start pounding, and you remember that, after all, this is Sam Shepard.

After this, realism doesn't get much of a look-in. Into the diner strolls the Colonel, dressed in an anachronistic mixture of dress uniform and battle gear, pushing a wheelchair occupied by Stubbs. They're here to celebrate an anniversary: two years ago a shell passed right through Stubbs's body, leaving him paralysed and killing the Colonel's son, who was standing behind him (or was he?).

As the evening wears on, the Colonel tries to force Stubbs to reconstruct the battle, using toy soldiers and tableware. Stubbs keeps reciting the story of how he got his wound, or shouting that his "thing" is dead; the Colonel grows angrier, while the couple at the next table sit motionless, breaking the silence to complain about the service - the waitress (Glory Bee), terrified of spilling something, moves at a snail's pace. Hints are dropped that America is under siege. As the atmosphere grows tenser, Glory dances with the Colonel and rolls on the floor with Stubbs (his "thing" comes back to life); a trolley full of gas-masks rolls on to the stage, Stubbs attacks the Colonel, and finally the whole cast drops into a chorus of "Goodnight Irene".

You guess that States of Shock is meant to portray the way that modern American has been unwittingly traumatised by war. In Michael Kingsbury's heavy-handed production, with its distressingly uneven mix of acting styles and accents, it comes across as a hollow and incoherent assembly of images. No shock here; just the minor traumas of boredom. RH

Suicide in B Flat doesn't sound like a great night out and, in the hands of Threshold Theatre Company, it isn't. Sam Shepard recently described his 1976 "mysterious overture" as "unsolvable", but as the cast ploughs its way into the ever-expanding textual sludge, you wonder whether "unperformable" wouldn't have been more appropriate.

As a pastiche "murder mystery" the play's unsolvability is bannerposted from the outset. No sooner has the conventional storyline been set up than its recognisable features are scrubbed out. Two detectives try to "reconstruct the imagination" of a corpse's life. The body might or might not have been that of a possibly great jazz composer (Niles), who might or might not have committed suicide. A backstage pianist tinkers as the two men expound theories and enact hypothetical butchery in Niles's flat. Their psychological free-fall is accelerated by a saxophonist and double- bass player who breeze in for a session. The cops leap into each other's laps and rant about sonic threats to the social fabric, while the bass player scrapes away and the saxophonist produces music at a frequency "so high even dogs can't hear it". Toy arrows fly across the stage as Niles attempts to bump off unwanted personae.

Initially, Shepard's audacity is breathtaking, as he stacks up layers of ludicrousness and portentousness. But all too soon the edifice totters. You find yourself agreeing with remarks like, "We've got to get out of here. This is worse than I expected." (Never have actors been given so much rope.) Clearly, audience alienation is implicit in the nervous collapse of the police investigation: to watch a drama unfold is to look for clues and piece together a meaning. Here, even to sift the evidence is to invite insanity. But concentrate on the characters, and things getworse. Laying aside the fact that one half of the cast does the equivalent of butterfly- stroke to the other's doggy-paddle, the play is a crude exercise in doing away with "character": "Are you inside me or outside me? Am I inside you?... Or am I just like you?... So exactly like you that we're exactly the same," intones Mark Heenehan's statuesque Niles.

The benefit of having other work by Shepard running concurrently is that you can remind yourself that when uncle Sam gets it right, he gets it right bigtime. There are flaws in Toby Reisz's production of A Lie of the Mind - not least the set, which occasionally has the cast backing into itself - but Shepard's world of dazed, confused, and not a little schizoid, men and women is touchingly realised. By contrast with the short- cut, all-inclusiveness of Suicide in B Flat, here the relations that bind the characters together are subtle and volatile. Jake beats up his wife, Beth, who winds up brain damaged. Jake, believing her dead, returns to his childhood home (neurotic mother), she to hers (a brilliantly senile parental double-act by Helen Horton and Morgan Deare, and a psychotic brother). It sounds grim, but as the past comes rattling out of their respective cupboards, Shepard releases a cruel comedy. Those around the unhappy couple wish to keep them in a state of dependence, but everyone uses family dysfunction as a way of shirking responsibility.

A festival of Sam Shepard loaded with safe bets would not be a festival worthy of the playwright."Ordinary is empty," as Melissa Chalsma's Beth says. It's just a shame that a risk-taking venture like Suicide in B Flat proves that the same can also be true of "extraordinary". DC

n 'States of Shock', 'Suicide in B Flat', 'A Lie of the Mind' to 20 July at BAC, London SW11. Booking: 0171-223 2223