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Dead White Males Nuffield Theatre, Southampton
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The Independent Culture
There's a scene in Dead White Males, David Williamson's comedy about PC censoriousness on an Australian campus, in which, with the full insincerity of someone simply out to get a high grade, a white female student (Lucinda Cowden) rehearses the obligatory objection that language is saturated with binary oppositions that "privilege" the masculine element. She then proceeds to read aloud a poem composed as a conscious corrective to such bias. Williamson wants us to think this work laughable tosh; a fellow student decries its ideological crudity. But it's a charge you may well feel the play itself fails to escape.

The overarching clash in the play is between Shakespeare (Tom Chadbon) and Grant Swain (Jeremy Clyde), a smoothy lecturer in the faculty of English and cultural studies. Whenever the bard appears and starts conversing with Angela (Claire Price), an initially deferential new student, the lecturer creeps in with a pistol and shoots him down. All very symbolic of the fact that, in Grant's opinion, Shakespeare must be seen to be as dead as the rest of them - those perpetrators of "pernicious ideological confections" (as Grant calls As You Like It) in which patriarchy poses as timeless wisdom.

Patrick Sandford's well-acted production gets some comic mileage out of the jargon and there are one or two pleasing moments (I liked the idea of Angela's painter-aunt preposterously attributing her feeling for landscape to an alleged touch of Aborigine blood). But in general the play makes poor drama because it represents both sides of the argument weakly. If Chadbon's Shakespeare comes across as a man who'd be hard put to pen a message to the milkman, let alone Measure for Measure, then Jeremy Clyde's lecturer has "bad faith" blaring like band music from every pore. Foucault and foreplay seem to amount to the same thing in his book.

Williamson fills most of the second half of the play with Angela, now a fully fledged Swain protegee, interviewing her relations for a class project on how personal histories are shaped by ideological self-interest. The testimony she elicits is designed to show her that things are rather less tidy than that. You may question, though, whether it was really necessary to allow her chauvinist grandfather (John Woodvine) to disarm criticism by suffering from terminal cancer as well as by revealing that his proverbial meanness is, in fact, the result of his secretly supporting a sick friend's family.

There are lapses in both drama and staging. Several ridiculous assertions about Shakespeare go unchallenged. At one point, he comes on, perplexedly frowning over a book by Camille Paglia. But Paglia, though a feminist, stridently despises PC types like Swain. When, in a climactic struggle with the bard, the lecturer shoots himself in the foot, you may think that he's only doing what the play has done to itself many times already.

n To 2 March. Booking: 01703 671771