ON THE FRINGE

Falstaff Grace Theatre, London Under Glass BAC, London
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The Independent Culture
The first thing you notice about Falstaff, at Battersea's Grace Theatre, is that it stinks. Not the acting, the set: damp wood chippings and incense and another layer of indefinable sickly sweetness. Judging by nose alone, we could be in a stables or a cathedral (or perhaps one of those rural Italian churches where they perform obscure blessings on farm animals). Except that a fat, old grey-beard lies upon a bed. The animal stench belongs to him. The sweetness we soon guess derives from stale sherry sack, to which Sir John Falstaff is so addicted that he even washes his face in it in the morning.

Robert Nye's 1976 novel Falstaff is one of those blindingly simple ideas that makes you wonder why nobody thought of it before: the memoirs of Shakespeare's great Rabelaisian hero, from the moment of conception (on top of the chalk giant's penis at Cerne Abbas, he claims) to the moment of his death. Shakespeare killed off Falstaff off-stage at the start of Henry V. Nye, in a stroke of inspiration, lets him live until the grand old age of 81, in the 37th year of King Henry VI's reign, during which time Fat Jack has witnessed not only the Battle of Agincourt and the capture of Joan of Arc, but also the British defeat in France. He has lived more but lost more as well.

In David Weston's one-man show (adapted from Nye's book by David Buck, originally as part of the RSC's "Other Plays" fringe festival) that loss becomes more evident as the evening progresses. In a way, this Falstaff, for all his geriatric joie de vivre, is a darker, more brittle character than Shakespeare's. His description of the Battle of Agincourt, for example, possesses all the poignancy of accounts of the First World War: more than 10,000 French slaughtered, the majority suffocated by their comrades falling on top of them. He worries about the beliefs of the Gnostics and the suffering of the doe-like Joan of Arc. Occasionally, he is stilled by regret or foreboding: "I am a man made of stars and mud, like the rest of them."

All this is intriguing, though I couldn't help feeling that a Falstaff who's survived being rejected by Prince Hal is a bit like a Lear whose Cordelia hasn't died or a Prospero who has lost his dukedom but instantly found a replacement. Banishment from Hal's presence isn't just another incident in Falstaff's life: it defines his whole being. A novel can sidestep this problem by turning him into a picaresque hero: a medieval Tom Jones or Frank Harris. On stage, where picaresque rarely works, it's harder to disguise.

None the less, there's plenty to enjoy here. Smell notwithstanding, Andrew Hunt's autumnally brown bedsit barn of a set is a delight. And Weston (who has played Falstaff in all his Shakespearian incarnations) makes a fine fat fool, chomping on a raw onion, using his helmet as a chamber- pot and expounding on his member, like a fisherman boasting about the size of his catch. Only his supposed 81 years betray him. In that respect, he's more like Sir John Mills than Sir John Falstaff.

Up the road at BAC, there's a more contemporary bedsit drama, in which the "design-led performance company" Bouge-de-la attempts to answer one of theatre's hardest questions: how do you present a life of boredom on stage without boring the audience?

Set in a dingy attic room, Under Glass shows one introverted young woman's attempt to break out of her insular existence and connect with the outside world, in the shape of a floppy-haired Swiss writer (Aurelian Koch). But before she can do any breaking out, Lucy O'Rorke has to establish the routine for her character, getting up in the morning, leaving the flat, returning in the evening, executing the same actions each day with ritual precision.

O'Rorke's performance is admirably detailed, even moving at times, but after three-quarters of an hour you begin to reflect how uneconomic an art visual theatre can be: two lines of Eleanor Rigby equals 45 minutes on stage.

`Falstaff' is at the Grace Theatre, London SW11 to 8 Mar (0171-223 3549); `Under Glass' is at BAC, London to 9 Mar (0171-223 2223)

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