Love's labours lose out before the war : Theatre : THE CRITICS

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The Independent Culture
ALONG with Firs's last entry in The Cherry Orchard and the arrival of the mounted messenger in The Threepenny Opera, the ominous apparition of Marcade among the revellers of Love's Labour's Lost is one of the supreme endings in European comedy. I have to confess that when I first saw Ian Judge's Edwardian production at Stratford two years ago, I missed the shadow of the 1914 war cast by Shakespeare's messenger of death.

There is no missing the reference to Flanders gunfire in Judge's recast revival, where the end of the Navarre party spells the end of an age. The comedy expires in dismay and darkness, after which the seasonal songs follow as a jolly little encore that have nothing to do with the story. I am glad to offer belated acknowledgment of this directorial masterstroke, and salute the few survivors of the original com-pany - particularly the magnificent partnership of Arthur Cox and Raymond Bowers as the mutually admiring pedants.

But some of the new casting is pretty peculiar. Boyet, the companion to the visiting French ladies, has changed into a rogueish female chaperone (Cherry Morris). Daniel Massey's languorously self-intoxicated Armado is now succeeded by the frisky Richard O'Callaghan, who turns the tattered grandee into a joke foreigner along the lines of Dr Caius in The Merry Wives, to the total loss of melancholy and music. And, nice as it is to have Jenny Agutter back on the English stage, her powers of erotic mischiefare not to be seen in her smiling, governess-like performance of the French princess.

Rosaline, however, gets her full due from Sarah Woodward as an exquisite insect with a painful sting; and Richard Garnett's Berowne, a crumpled, fag-smoking sceptic among the votaries, has a fine line in mock-peevish tantrums. You can see him walking into a German shell, bleary from the last night's hangover. The outlines of the production, and John Gunter's lovely pastoral collegiate settings, remain intact. It is not quite the show it was; but it is still not to be missed.

In reviewer-speak, Carole Braverman's The Yiddish Trojan Women could be put down as diagrammatic. Set in Brooklyn in the 1980s, it follows the lives of old Devorah, a refugee from the Polish pogroms, and her three girls - variously seeking fulfilment as a strip-joint comedienne, a union organiser and (here comes the Euripidean bit) a student of mythology. Devorah, about to embark on a fifth marriage, still sees herself as the belle of the shtetl. This is only the starting point for an engrossingly far-ranging piece that begins in the Woody Allen vein and develops with tragic force to an ending that links blazing Polish villages to the big-business atrocities of Latin America.

Braverman is a moral dramatist who earns the right to every judgment she makes through piercing ironies, eloquent command of differing speech idioms and detailed character examination. Witness the step-by-step growth of the affair between one of the girls and a truck driver, from a one-night stand to the irresolvable conflicts of betrayal and sexual respect. Ronan Vibert, the only man in Hettie Macdonald's cast, brings the qualities of the young Brando to the role of the stunted lover trying to voice experiences for which he has no words. The girls, led by Maria Charles's age-changing Devorah, are superb.

Two outstanding physical- theatre events on the fringe. In Marguerite Duras's Savannah Bay, a 1983 conversation piece, two women - one old, one young - evoke the presence of a third whose death robbed them respectively of a daughter and a mother. In Katrin Magrowitz's (Koncrete Theatre) production, the speakers (Anna Chauveau and Lisa D'Agostino) are removed to a spatial limbo corresponding to the psychological gap between them. The set consists of no more than a chair and a rostrum, which yields an endless flow of scenic variety, with stabbing light changes, and fiercely disciplined transitions of mood and time as the two women seek to approach one another through fragmentary recollections of the woman who at once unites and divides them. The drowned protagonist meanwhile haunts the stage through a cello commentary and colour symbolism based on Munch's Three Women by the Sea. Duras normally leaves me cold: played like this, she generates quite a charge.

Bela Balazs is known to the world as the librettist of Bartok's Duke Bluebeard's Castle. The text itself (with additions from Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber) emerges as the same symbolist ritual in Luke Dixon and Jane Turner's (Soho Group) production. But Balazs's windowless vault with its seven locked doors and weeping walls now appears as a dazzling white platform where the ogre's wives parade in wedding finery with the impassive faces of mannequins. The show opens with a minimalist dance prelude and bursts into speech with the arrival of Judith (Debbie Yearsley), the new bride: whereupon the role of Bluebeard is shared between the other girls. The transformation of these doll-like creatures into embodiments of macho authority is electrifying, and adds a fresh dimension of female fantasy to the legend.

Sets and dresses are designed in cellophane, the trashiest of materials, which here takes on an appearance of the most voluptuous glamour.

`Love's Labour's Lost': Barbican, 071-638 8891. `Yiddish Trojan Women': Cockpit, 071-402 5081. `Savannah Bay': New Grove, 071-383 0925. `Duke Bluebeard's Castle': Turtle Key, 071-385 4905.