Out of this world

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The Independent Culture
It must be the role from hell. At any rate, Equity's answer to the stocks. Namely, the lead in Witold Gombrowicz's Ivona, Princess of Burgundia. In this grotesque 1938 Polish fairy-tale, Prince Charming falls for someone who not only lacks picture-book beauty but is also devoid of anything that could be called "character": a woman as silent as the grave, as sexless as a tub of lard, inertia personified. In a programme note to Mandala and Scarlet theatre companies' co-worked version Princess Sharon (staged in London at Queen Elizabeth Hall), the director, Katarzyna Deszcz, argues that Sharon "is not simple or stupid, though she is often portrayed that way. In fact, she is a highly intelligent person." The question the play forces you to ask, though, is: how can anyone tell? All that we know for certain is that her behaviour makes the conventionally minded types around her feel idiotic; so much so that they unite to get rid of her.

To describe Sue Maund as made for the part is probably the sort of notice the actress could do without. But it's no small skill to be at once centre of attention and on another planet - to succeed by bringing nothing to the character. Sporting a puritanically prim black frock, Maund's Sharon moves lumpenly around the stage, gazing through bedraggled locks at her courtly surroundings with the kind of glassy fixity normally seen in decomposing trout. The beauty of the performance lies in the way she manages, with the sincerest of means, to suggest autonomy rather than automatism. Sharon cannot/ will not speak the language of the palace, which, in this production, is as much a system of highly stylised physical ties as stiff-upper-lipped aristo-discourse. Though the pace occasionally slackens, the conceit never runs out of steam. By the end, Sharon's instinctive passivity has acquired the force of a revolutionary idea: as Eric Maclennan's Prince, caught between two worlds, groans nonsensically: "Wherever she is, she exists."

Only Human TC's Oblomov, now ensconced at the London Pleasance after breezing through Edinburgh last year, aspires to a similar symbolism, but sadly fails - ironically because it tries too hard. At first glance, creating a present-day slacker equivalent to Goncharov's 19th-century Russian noble idler is an inspired stroke. Simply substitute a flat above a restaurant in Old Compton Street, WC1 for the crumbling mansion in Gorokhovaya Street. We find Dan O'Brien's unshaven air-head exactly where the novelist would have wanted him: in bed, awaiting his giro, as immovable as Neil Hamilton. His ethereal tranquillity is instantly disrupted by a host of worldly types: a sharp-tongued tax-collector (excellent Jan Chappell), sundry high-flying friends and a minor celebrity (comedian Stewart Lee - so dashingly post-modern). Worse is yet to come in the shape of Moira, a radio presenter on a mission to stop Oblomov obsessively contemplating the first moon-landing and bring him down to earth.

Playwright Stephen Sharkey dabbles with some interesting ideas, not least that, in his own solitary and bone-idle way, Oblomov is striving for a far saner (and more truly socialist) society than any political party in his "home world". The trouble is that Oblomov is never quite realised as the embodiment of anything; he gets lost in the dialogue between vacuous secondary characters. When hurled against Princess Sharon, the insult "dead from the neck up" rebounds brilliantly: here, it neither seems true of Oblomov, nor an indictment of his mockers. That said, any play that is partly set in Hounslow under the Heathrow flightpath has a laudable sense of the ridiculous.

To see some truly gratuitous updating, head over to the Duke of Cambridge, where Fallen Angels have staged The Art of Seduction, Ranjit Bolt's new translation of Marivaux's La Double Inconstance. There should be a ban on using coke-snorting as shorthand for moral decadence; and, in this case, imprisonment for distracting the audience with the genius of Pulp. The play itself is worthy of revival: like Sharon, it centres round the ingenue at court, though here the two rustic lovers are seduced and separated by the world they enter. Bolt's translation is enjoyably rough round the edges ("What an arse I am!"), and the cast are competent - but it's all far too slow, the characters ponder their every word, laying everything bare. The whole project needs Shazzing up.

'Princess Sharon' from tomorrow to Sat, Library Theatre, Manchester (0161- 236 7110), tour continues to 10 May; 'Oblomov' to 26 Apr, the Pleasance, London N7 (0171-609 1800); 'The Art of Seduction' to Sun, Duke of Cambridge, London NW7 (0171-485 5128)