ON THE FRINGE

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The Independent Culture
Those demon eyes were bound to make an appearance during the election campaign, and here they are. The programme for Measure for Measure (Cockpit) shows a goonish fellow grinning Blairishly, his eyes replaced by infernal coals - which isn't very flattering to the leader of the opposition, given that this is Angelo, an autocratic reformist with a Messiah complex. Still, Peter Mandelson can rest easy. The strength of David Salter's first-rate production for Word of Mouth isn't its topicality but its clarity: it lets Shakespeare's most mysterious of texts speak for itself without unnecessary spin.

Not that Salter plays it completely straight. There's some gender-bending for starters. The bawdhouse-owner Mistress Overdone has become a leatherclad beardy, while the Duke - who has temporarily entrusted his realm to Angelo - is played by a woman. What's most surprising about that is how little difference it makes, perhaps because the Duke never entirely feels like a character in the traditional sense - more a puppeteer pulling the strings. The set, however, is distinctly no-frills. Angelo's desk and chair are almost the only furniture. The only other adornment is a wall of corrugated iron and faded wallpaper.

Visually, the actors have been left to hold their own, and they come up trumps. Anthony Murray does a deftly comic turn as the roguish Lucio. He seems to have based him on Tony Parsons circa 1977. As Isabella, the would-be nun who refuses to save her brother's life by sleeping with Angelo, Nicole Arkless sometimes appears uneasy with the verse. Nor does she smoulder with repressed passion like some Isabellas, but she finds her strength (as both actor and character) in the "seduction" scene, a pint-sized dynamo who fells Angelo with a well-placed elbow - and who shares a little of his moral absolutism. Charlie Cartmell's excellent Angelo is a shaven- haired bureaucrat, with little round glasses and a sneaking resemblance to the evil Archers farm manager Simon Pemberton. He burns hot with self- justification and lust, but his natural element is frost: as Lucio observes, "when he makes water his urine is congealed ice". Usually, in the last speech, the Duke proposes marriage to Isabella. Here, it is an unrepentant Angelo who gets to whisper those words, which have become the play's final lines. Some politicians never learn.

The Tempest (Grace) takes different kinds of liberties. Richard Hurst's intelligent but often frustrating production uses five actors to play 10 roles: not an easy task when the concluding scene puts everyone on stage. The bit of doubling that works best is Miranda/ Ariel, who almost become the same person. When Prospero (Kevin Costello) sets Ariel free, she instantly turns into Miranda, pecking the magician on the cheek and skipping across the room into Ferdinand's arms. Jessica Willcocks's Miranda is particularly good: a nicely drawn cross between spunky adolescent and ingenue. When she loses at chess, she throws the pieces at Ferdinand; when he offers her his hand, she shakes it formally. Ferdinand and Caliban is a natural pairing (Miranda's wooer and her attempted rapist), not so Alonso and Prospero. Like the Duke in Measure For Measure, Prospero's character doesn't so much take part in the action as manipulate and mould it. Link his character too closely to any other and that crucial separateness is lost. Besides, it twists the play into the strangest of shapes. At one point, we have Prospero (played by Ariel/ Miranda) addressing Alonso (Prospero's double). This is either psychological dynamite or a bit of a mess.

From a desert island to the desert itself, where the child-like Pilot crash lands in Captain of the Birds (Young Vic). Edward Carey's new play is loosely based on the life of Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the accident- prone aviator and author of the children's classic The Little Prince. Saint-Ex was mawkishly nostalgic about childhood. What, imagines Carey, was the human cost of his failure to grow up? As a child, the Pilot destroys a love affair between his family's butler, Cyprien (Nick Raggett), and Moisy (Becky Hindley) the maid, because it stops him being the centre of attention. When he returns there, an adult, for his grandmother's funeral, he finds the two servants old and worn, the family silver sold, his youthful idyll destroyed. In between, we see him in the desert and at the flat he shares with his mad wife Rose (Tracy Wiles). Josh Darcy is endearingly pathetic as the Pilot, a podgy Peter Pan with a Biggles helmet, and there's solid support from Hindley and Wiles. Ultimately, though, Carey's dreamy script is too light on plot, and the captain never quite takes off.

'Measure for Measure', Cockpit Theatre, London NW9 (0171-402 5081) to 3 May; 'The Tempest', Grace Theatre, London SW11 (0171-223 3549) to 3 May; 'Captain of the Birds', Young Vic, London SE1 (0171-928 6363) to 26 Apr

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