Lepage's Dream Play moves more than heaven and earth

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The Independent Culture
THE LAST time Robert Lepage directed a play with "Dream" in the title, it was his distinctly earthbound, mud-spattered version of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the National. The contrast with his approach to Strindberg's A Dream Play, paying a brief visit to Glasgow from Stockholm, could hardly be starker. This production floats in mid- air, on a stage formed by three sides of a hollow cube, tilted towards the audience so that the actors stand on a steep rake. The scenery (according to Strindberg's wishes) is provided by projections which dissolve in and out of one another, imbuing the action, at any rate some of the time, with an uplifting sense of transparency and weightlessness; and as the projections change, the half-cube rotates, so that what was the floor is now a wall, and a window has become a trap-door.

The technical ingenuity involved is remarkable, and at times the staging throws up startlingly beautiful images - in the opening scene, for instance, the god Indra's daughter descends through an eerie cloudscape to be overwhelmed by a babble of voices and music from the earth below. Later, having come down to earth to see how men live, Indra's daughter marries the kindly advocate, and the stage starts to spin madly, tumbling the couple through a cycle of love-making into childbirth.

In a note to the play, Strindberg wrote that he had "tried to imitate the disconnected but apparently logical form of a dream ... a blend of memories, experiences, free inventions, absurdities, and improvisations". Lepage responds brilliantly to this conception of dream-logic, offering constant references to the world outside the dreamer - so the ageing lover waiting for his beloved outside the theatre door suddenly becomes the pantaloon in a mad harlequinade and the blacked-up quarantine master at Foulport is straight out of Struwwelpeter. But these snatched ideas are just teasing - you're never allowed quite to grasp what is going on.

Marvellous though this is, the pitch of inventiveness isn't sustained for all the production's three hours and more; towards the end, especially in the sequence where Indra's daughter and the young poet complain to God, it starts to sag quite badly. You get the sense that Lepage has concentrated too much on achieving the qualities of a dream, and not enough on the tightness demanded by a play. And, much of the time, the action feels imprisoned rather than liberated by the complexities of the staging and the cramping space of the stage. It is, to be sure, a wonderfully realised dream; but it's also a relief, in ways that it shouldn't be, to wake up.

The allegiances between A Dream Play and Rodney Ackland's Absolute Hell aren't immedi- ately obvious: one is expressionism at its most extreme, the other a painstaking naturalism in the old West End tradition of the "well-made" play. But there is common ground in the pictures both plays paint of people trapped in individual hells. At times in Ackland's portrayal of alcohol- fuelled bohemian London in the run-up to the 1945 general election, you pick up hints of a less literal, less literary voice struggling to make itself heard: at the end of the first act, for instance, when a drunken, whooping Judi Dench, surrounded by a gang of baying GIs in animal masks, starts to tear off her clothes. You wonder whether Anthony Page's meticulous period recreation is really what the play needs - what would Stephen Daldry have made of it?

That said, it's nice to get a proper opportunity to judge Ackland's claims to greatness - for a few years now, it has been rumoured that he was a lost national treasure. On this showing, that's something of an exaggeration. Absolute Hell is a tremendously entertaining play, or would be with a bit of minor liposuction to get rid of some of the flab - Page's decision to perform it uncut was certainly mistaken. Its main virtue is the persuasive drawing of the two central characters: Christine, the posturing, desperate hostess of a club, La Vie en Rose, (Dench, excellent), and Hugh Marriner, an over- sensitive, under-productive homosexual writer (Greg Hicks, very good). But the rest of the preening, toping crowd in the club are little more than caricatures. It's a problem, too, that Ackland can't resist telling you exactly what to think of them: "Nothing but a lot of half-baked ostriches," says Dench's put-upon assistant, in case you hadn't grasped the significance of the pink lighting and the constant downing of treble whiskies. There are lots of things to enjoy here - you just wish Ackland knew when to stop.

You don't have to go very far at all to find the connections between Absolute Hell and Ronald Harwood's new play Taking Sides, which has just had simultaneous premieres in Chichester and Poland. Like Absolute Hell, Taking Sides is set just after the war; and both plays are haunted by the spectre of the death camps. In the case of Absolute Hell this is a distant horror, something not to be thought on if possible; whereas in Harwood's play, the camps are a constant presence, at least for Michael Pennington's American officer, robbed of sleep by the things he has seen.

The subject of the play is the role played by the conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler under the Nazis: history records that he helped hundreds, if not thousands of Jews to escape, and published articles criticising Hitler's regime. But the fact remains that he did stay in Germany, an advertisement (however unwilling) for German culture, when many of his colleagues left in the 1930s. Pennington is the officer charged with establishing precisely what his connections with the Nazi party may have been - or, in his own words, he's out to nail the bastard. His case (and the play's tension) isn't helped by the fact that there is no evidence of Furtwangler having done anything definitely wrong; but by the end, Daniel Massey's peering, tortoise- like Furtwangler has been broken by the revelations of his sexual appetites, his petty jealousy of the young Karajan, his paranoia.

Harwood kicks up so many issues in the course of the play - about the relationship between the artist and the human being, about the importance of art in the face of Holocaust - that at times he doesn't seem to know what to do with them. Some questions are left hanging in the air - you know that Furtwangler auditioned Jewish musicians before helping them but you don't know what happened to the ones who failed the auditions - and some of the answers aren't very satisfactory. And I'm not sure how well it's served by Harold Pinter's staid production. All the same, it's hard to stop mulling over the questions for a long time after the play has finished; perhaps, with this kind of drama of ideas, that's all you should expect.

The joker in the pack this week is Eddie Izzard in the title role of Edward II at Leicester. Not that there is anything funny going on. It's a dull play, and Edward in particular has some extremely long, prosey speeches; you wonder why Izzard wanted to do it. At the preview, only a couple of camp little flounces, a sarcastic waggle of the head give some idea of what he might do with the part if he was really sure of himself. He's not helped by Paul Kerryson's wearisomely familiar production: it's the one where the noblemen wear business suits and executions are carried out by men in black bala-clavas. You've probably seen the same production, only then it would have been Macbeth or King John or some Jacobean revenge tragedy. You don't want to bother seeing it again.

'Dream Play': Tramway, Glasgow, 0141 227 5699, tonight & tomorrow. 'Absolute Hell': Lyttelton, SE1, 0171 928 2252. 'Taking Sides': Minerva, Chichester, 0124 378 1312. 'Edward II': Haymarket, Leicester, 0116 253 9797.

Irving Wardle is away.