It's suffering all the way with Vanessa

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The Independent Culture
UNTIL my wife pointed it out, I hadn't spotted that London's favourite playwright this year - with six productions so far - is Euripides. Evidently there is a public hunger for works that set insight and moral nourishment above pleasure. Equally, there are not many stages or living writers that dare to move beyond the pleasure principle; unless cold-shouldered veterans like Peter Barnes, Edward Bond and Peter Nichols are harbouring Euripidean masterpieces in their stacks of unperformed work.

What is needed is someone brave enough to take the plunge into these neglected waters, as Vanessa and Corin Redgrave have done in their "Memory" season, a two-month international event, timed to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the defeat of fascism, that focuses as much on how we have staggered through to the 1990s as on the present calamities of Eastern Europe.

It opens at the deep end with Dusan Jovanovic's The Liberation of Skopje, the 1944 story of a patriotic Macedonian family. Played on a rubble- strewn floor serving for interior and outdoor scenes, and punctuated with benighted flourishes of Balkan rock, Ljubisa Ristic's production is a mess. But how could it seem otherwise to a British spectator, insulated from the privations and terror it depicts? Ordinary life somehow grinds on under a German-Bulgarian occupation in a town swarming with informers; and the family's average day includes food bartering, running a partisan printing press and giving piano lessons.

Jovanovic begins in the heroic mode. Father is away, fighting for freedom. Lence, the mother (Vanessa Redgrave) holds the fort with uncle Georgij, and the place is aflame with national resistance and joyful folk dance. Then Georgij is savagely beaten up by the Bulgarian police. He survives without betraying his comrades and returns to a hero's welcome, half-paralysed and speechless. But from that moment, the heroics are over. Jovanovic's message is that suffering does not ennoble: and the sight of Rade Serb- edzija (Georgij) changing from a gallant patriot into a self-centered cripple, destroying old friendships for the sake of a pigeon dinner, and assaulting Lence's mother with his crutches, is intensely and painfully truthful.

Lence undergoes a parallel change as she safeguards the nest by prostituting her sister Lica to a German officer. At which point the radiant Redgrave smile switches off; in its place appears a haggard, suspicious house-keeper, arriving at Lica's bedside as soon as the client has left, to take an inventory of the goodies he left behind and ransack the room for undisclosed foodstuffs. That she still preserves a maternal passion for her 10-year- old son redoubles the ugliness of what she has become to everyone else. Redgrave and Serbedzija's unsparing performances fearsomely enlarge the received idea of character development. The ordeal of surviving turns them into other people; just as the play's courageous opening gestures gradually shrivel into whining demands for chocolate and hunts for hidden tins of condensed milk. This piece dates from 1977, and ends with the sight of Lence's little boy riding off on a white horse, symbolising a hopeful future. But it is the central episodes, not the finale, that are prophetic.

In Our Boys Jonathan Lewis takes the lid off one of our society's scrap- heaps: the military hospital. Without quite asserting that the Army washes its hands of soldiers who are too sick to kill anybody, it presents a group of disabled Falklands and Northern Ireland veterans who have good reason for thinking that their treatment matches their lowly Other Rank status. The toughest of them dies from an undiag-nosed embolism; another is being counselled for his "negative attitude" after a terrorist bombingthat left him clutching the legless corpse of his best friend. And, in this ward of brain-damaged, wheelchair-bound, nightmare-afflicted victims, the petty business of Army discipline carries on as usual. When a few cans of non-regulation beer are smuggled in, the boys who have sacrificed their bodies to Queen and Country are all in danger of dishonourable discharge.

Lewis's wonderfully cast production presents a transient family that successfully renews the wartime "bomber crew" genre. Six lives are woven into a central narrative that develops through a sequence of logical surprises. Keith (Sean Gilder), a bawling Orangeman, reveals himself as the most tender comrade. The paralysed Ian (Jake Wood) is the only one to make a complete recovery; while the apparently able-bodied, fast-talking Joe (Lloyd Owen) has no prospect of ever getting out. The group close ranks against a potential officer inmate whom they instinctively suspect of betrayal; at which point Lewis springs a devastating surprise that goes much beyond mere plottery. For anyone who has served in the Army, the piece awakens nostalgia as well as indignation; though nothing in my memory can match Lewis's jokes.

Much the best performance in Ian Judge's production of Vanbrugh's The Relapse is Christopher Godwin's cameo of Coupler - the matchmaker who steers Young Fashion into a profitable wedlock with a rustic heiress. Coupler is known for being old and lecherous; which is no preparation for Godwin's apparition as a skeleton satyr, lascivious tongue flickering out of his death's head, and undergoing seizures of ecstasy whenever he is lucky enough to make contact with human flesh. Also, whenever he rebounds into action it is with forceful, immaculately phrased speech. In that respect he differs from most of the surrounding company. They are lusciously costumed (by Tim Goodchild), and vigorously in command of the double plot; but too often they pursue it as though the language were a tiresome obstacle. There is little sense that Vanbrugh was writing about people whose passion for sexual intercourse only slightly exceeded their lust for playing with words. Honour-able exceptions are Christopher Benjamin's ogreishly elephantine Sir Tunbelly (a natural successor to his Mr Sterling in The Clandestine Marriage) and Susan Tracy's predatory Berinthia, who takes full advantage of a small theatre to single out hypocrites in the audience. I also enjoyed Lorraine Ashboune's Lancashire Hoyden, busily rehearsing for her dbut in London society with semaphoring arm gestures.

Lord Foppington, the greatest of his tribe, is played by Victor Spinetti as a gold and crimson blancmange with a peruke down to his knees. And like the costume, the performance makes fun of the character. Instead of a seraphic dandy, who knows himself to be the ultimate ornament of civilisation, and who takes his trivial daily routines in sacramental earnest, Spinetti offers a grimacing buffoon, who delivers the famous oaths as if in quotation marks, and goes through the role signalling to the audience over the character's head. Spinetti is a fine comic artist, but a hothouse Restoration bloom he is not.

`The Liberation of Skopje': Riverside, 0171 836 3464. `Our Boys': Donmar, 0171 369 1732. `The Relapse': Swan, Stratford, 01789 295623