Private vices on parade

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The Independent Culture
WRITING IN the Independent last month, Adrian Noble quoted Hamlet's line, "We'll hear a play tomorrow", to illustrate the shift in sensory perception from the classical to the modern theatre. OK, Shakespeare expected his audience to listen. But move on to Ben Jonson mournfully addressing the Caroline public: "Would you were come," he says, "to hear, not see a play."

So did the shift take place in the 25 years between those two quotations? That at least is what appears from the Stratford season's opening productions of Romeo and Juliet and Jonson's The Devil is an Ass. In one you get the text and precious little more; in the other, a feast of language, integrated with a mock-heroic score (Gary Yershon) and astounding visual effects in a combined assault on the comic senses. On this evidence, Jonson had nothing to complain about.

After Stuart Burge's 1973 revival, which rescued The Devil is an Ass from three centuries of oblivion, the play vanished yet again. So let me run up the flag for it, as a work that ranks with The Alchemist in masterly plotting and verbal energy. Unlike The Alchemist, though, its story is easily misunderstood. Pug, an ap- prentice devil, is given one day on earth to do his worst, but by the time he expires in Newgate on the stroke of midnight, the cudgelled and humiliated fiend has to admit that "Hell's a grammar school" compared to the sophisticated corruption of London. In that sense, the play amounts to a comic reversal of Doctor Faustus. But alongside the parade of vices, there is a love plot in which a would-be adulterer, Wittipol, develops from a sexual predator into his mistress's true friend: thus, it seems, cancelling out Pug's conclusions on the wicked city.

The key to this apparent contradiction is that Jonson was not serious about hell in the first place. Pug delivers judgement on London; Jonson does not. Satan figures simply as the "chief", and Pug (John Dougall) is a harmless prankster brought back from the old morality plays as an outside observer. What he discovers is a primitive form of monopoly capitalism presided over by Meercraft - an all-purpose projector, and con-man - against whom Pug is powerless. Their joint quarry is Fitzdottrel, a numbskull squire who is equally prepared to risk his wife's virtue for the sake of a new cloak, and to squander his inheritance on Meercraft's schemes for fenland drainage and improvements in the toothpick industry.

Fitzdottrel is a vicious elder version of young Bartholomew, the boy who wants to buy everything he sets eyes on in Bartholomew Fair; and the whole piece is thronged with shadows from Jonson's other plays. But such is the vitality of the piece that your interest is in where the characters are going, not where they have come from. Successful performance needs actors who can make heavyweight verse seem light as a feather; and Matthew Warchus's production offers the best Jonsonian team since Sam Mendes's The Alchemist five years ago. The contrast between David Troughton's loutishly credulous Fitzdottrel, John Nettles's mountebank dandy Meercraft, and Douglas Henshall's cherubically calculating Wittipol is pushed to the limit; but what they share is the power to follow their desires in clear, long-limbed actions that incorporate a mass of incidental detail. Once the comic machine is in motion, it develops an unstoppable momentum, up to the moment where the frantic Fitzdottrel - driven to feign madness by levitating and spitting fire - finally slumps back to earth. It is a fittingly spectacular ending for a show in which stage magic and physical invention support every turn of the plot.

Situated in a Verona (designed by Kendra Ullyart) where washing lines overhang the palatial gates to the Capulet estate, and Juliet delivers "Gallop apace" from a swing apparently located in the city square, Adrian Noble's production of Romeo and Juliet is not strong on the sense of place. Nor on the reality of public events, from its Feydeau police whistles, instant arrivals of the Prince's retinue, and the sight of top-hatted gentlemen with swords.

To begin with, it seems that some distancing irony was intended; but that possibility fizzles out when Zubin Varla's squeaky, physically unco- ordinated Romeo emerges not as a deliberately anti-romantic lead but simply a foot-stamping juvenile. Lucy Whybrow's Juliet is much the stronger partner, particularly in passages of racing emotional growth; but in presenting the character as a child, she too can make the verse sound childish. The main love interest comes from Mark Lock-yer's superb Mercutio, a perfor- mance of amazing transitions from fearless sardonic effrontery to waif- like defenceless. Julian Glover and Christopher Benjamin are arrestingly intelligent in the no-thanks roles of the Friar and Capulet.

Donal McCann, a fast-talking Meercraft in 1973, returns as Thomas Dunne, the massive, brooding protagonist of Sebas- tian Barry's The Steward of Christendom, in a combined production by Out of Joint and the Royal Court. Formerly superintendent of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, now the inmate of a rural mental home, Thomas passes his days in a bare Beckettian den, compulsively reliving the post-Civil War events of 1922 which lost him his position at Dublin Castle and his three daughters. Politically, the play examines the divided loyalties of a Catholic patriot in the service of Westminster; personally it shows what this cost him as a parent. And as the action swings between his remembered status and his actual destitution (with fast changes between gold-braided uniform and filthy long johns), what takes shape is a life-long quest for freedom in which the past merges into the present. Thanks to McCann, the piece works a hypnotic spell; but he would not have worked it without the unforced poetry of Barry's text and a production (Max Stafford Clark) that translates the memory convention into continuous reality.

In Joanna McClelland Glass's If We Are Women, two aged mothers speed to the support of the newly widowed Jessica, whose daughter meanwhile has taken a night off to shed her virginity. Far from generating a plot, these matters of life and death only prompt the ladies into an invertebrate session of gossip, joke-swapping, and petulant door- slamming. The message is that daughters are ungrateful, and everybody has regrets. In Richard Olivier's antiseptic production the talents of Joan Plowright, Sheila Paterson, and Diana Quick are severely under-employed.

`The Devil': Stratford-upon-Avon Swan, 0789 295623. `Romeo': Stratford Royal Shakespeare, 0789 295623. `The Steward of Christendom': Royal Court Upstairs, SW1, 071-730 1745, to 22 Apr. `If We Are Women': Greenwich, SE10, 081-858 7755, to 29 Apr.