Losing someone in the translation

THEATRE The Liberation of Skopje Riverside Studios, London
From the title, you might be led to expect a stirring drama about Tito's partisans and their heroic struggle to free the Macedonian capital from Nazi and Bulgarian occupation. In fact, though a liberator on a white horse rides in at the end over the bleak, earth-covered stage at the Riverside, the mood even then is mixed with shame and apprehension. The focus of Dusan Jovanovic's play, first performed in Zagreb in 1977, is less on the liberation than on the humiliation of the people of Skopje. It makes you privy to their privations and sufferings and the degrading compromises the situation thrust upon them.

One of the central characters is a seven-year-old boy, Zoran (Thomas Orange) whose father is away fighting with the partisans and whose mother Lica (Hilary Tones) has been prevailed on to curb the persecution of her patriotic Christian orthodox family by making her bed available to a young German officer. The play invites you to speculate about the long-term effects on such children of their warping wartime experiences and of the gulf of incomprehension that will now exist between them and their returned hero-fathers.

Ljubisa Ristic's staging, which uses a mix of actors from this country and from the former Yugoslavia, is the first English language production of the play - and its intelligibility to an English audience is fitful. Mostly this is because of the jabbing, short-winded way the drama unfolds, its often tiny scenes (some of which go into baffling instant replay at different speeds) punctuated by dense blackouts and blaring bursts of rock-fusion electric guitar. What can be left unexplained to those familiar with the material is simply inexplicable to those who aren't. Certain between-scenes switches of allegiance (from patriot, say, to Bulgarian collaborator) I found quite unfathomable.

Staged in an open-plan way that allows for many tragic and tragi-farcical juxtapositions, the play contains extraordinarily powerful sequences, though, and admirably refuses to peddle the idea that suffering enobles or that heroes cannot coarsen into something less edifying. It's typical of its procedures that Georgij (Rade Serbedzija), who refused to spill the beans under vicious Bulgarian torture that has left him partially paralysed and with a massive speech handicap, should gradually turn into a drunken presumptuous sot who has no time for anyone's afflictions but his own.

As his wife Lence, Vanessa Redgrave movingly shows you a loving, sensitive but now drained woman who has had to harden herself to cope with the exigencies of survival. It's her sister who is sleeping with the Nazi and Redgrave's Lence, though she suggested that arrangement in the first place, does not bother to hide her disgust as she rips off the enseamed sheets or rebukes the sister for joining him in scoffing many of the provisions he has brought in payment. In a wonderfully acted amalgam of apologetic tenderness and underlying utter determination, Lence persuades her little nephew Zoran to give up his sandals, precious to him because they were a present from his father but now too tight, so that she can exchange them for eggs.

Ristic harboured hopes of presenting the piece in London's Blitz-evoking Aldwych Underground station, but that would only have emphasised the huge difference between being bombed by the enemy and being occupied by them.

n To 6 May at Riverside Studios, London W6 (0181-741 2255)

Paul Taylor