Soft targets - Arts and Entertainment - The Independent

Soft targets

THEATRE The Comic Mysteries Greenwich Theatre, London

With any production of the Mysteries, the audience is confronted with the question: in Britain, in the Nineties, what possible relevance can there be in a medieval retelling of the Bible? Dario Fo's Mistero Buffo poses an even harder question: in Britain in the Nineties, what possible relevance can there be in a medieval retelling of the Bible dressed up as a piece of Sixties Italian Marxist agitprop?

The Comic Mysteries at Greenwich is, in fact, not quite Fo's Mistero Buffo. The Oxford Stage Company's version cuts the text considerably and expands the cast, so that what was a one-man show is now an ensemble piece, with a cast of six showing off their versatility with multiple roles, singing and playing musical instruments. It does preserve Fo's structure, though, if structure is the right word for something so fragmentary and elusive.

The various sketches that make up the show fall into two categories. First, there is Fo's take on the life of Christ - more or less recognisable versions of the Gospels, though with the twist that Christ himself never appears. Instead, he is seen through the eyes of the people whose lives he fractures and heals (or, in some cases, fails to affect in any way whatsoever): a mother driven mad when Herod's soldiers slaughter her child; a blind man and a cripple healed by Christ (against their will - it could put a stop to their begging careers), Mary failing to comprehend why her son must die. Along with these, there are a series of more abstract sketches featuring the figures of the Jongleur, the medieval travelling player who, according to Fo, used comedy as a cover for assaults on the established order, and the Fool, a whitefaced, melancholy Everyman. There is also a brief vignette featuring Pope Boniface VIII, a swaggering bully of a pontiff confounded by a sudden encounter with the risen Christ.

Some of this is moving, some of it quietly unsettling - the Fool's attempted seduction of the lady Death, in a back room of the inn where the Last Supper is taking place, is a haunting piece of symbolism, at once quaint and macabre. What it never is, though, is especially comic. Partly, this is a matter of cultural distance - there's nothing particularly subversive about trashing the pope in this country; nor does papal humour offer any useful parallels with our own established religion (nobody ever accused Robert Runcie or George Carey of being too worldly). Partly, it's a flaw of John Retallack's production, which for all its stark intelligence too often seems to be offering virtuoso imitations of comedy rather than the real thing - William Lawrance's preening Boniface is an all-too-neat example.

Mostly, it's a problem inherent in Fo: his ironies rely on a straightforward moral and political message, an easy dichotomy of rulers and ruled, which seem unconvincing in post-industrial Britain. There are many delights in The Comic Mysteries - Mia Soteriou's music, Ben Ormerod's lighting, a clutch of polished performances; but in the end, they are the delights of a trip to the museum. To 19 April Booking: 0181-858 7755

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