Startling an audience out of complacency

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The Independent Culture
RAT IN THE SKULL Ron Hutchinson

ONE FLEA SPARE Naomi Wallace

BLOOD Pete Brooks

There are two radical strands in British theatre design. One is to take theatres out of the theatres, as Deborah Warner recently did when she staged The Waste Land for the Dublin Festival in an old munitions store. The intention is to exploit the existing atmosphere of a building and to break down the audience's complacency with the predictable theatre- going experience.

The other departure is to work in conventional theatres dramatically transformed, to de-familiarise the familiar and so heighten the audience's perceptions. Again Deborah Warner and the designer Hildegarde Bechtler were the initiators of this concept with Footfalls. Stephen Daldry and designer Mark Thompson followed suit when they staged Arnold Wesker's The Kitchen, and Daldry has used the same technique for Ron Hutchinson's play Rat in the Skull, staged at the Duke of York's. Here William Dudley's imposition of clanging metal walkways and flashing alarm lights where once there was velvet plush and rosy house-lighting prepares a West End audience for what is to come - a searing study of the finer brutalities of the Northern Ireland situation.

Angela Davies is a designer who explores both of these new directions. She converted the Gate Theatre last year into a 16th-century Portuguese harbour for Gil Vicente's Boat Plays, but her latest design for Naomi Wallace's perverse and fascinating One Flea Spare plays with our expectations of the traditions of the Bush Theatre itself. The Bush is known for naturalistic designs but here the stage is given a rake, the first in living memory at this address. Such artifice signals a different way of reading a play which is something more poetic than naturalistic.

Pete Brooks is a theatre-maker whose passion for the cinema led him, in 1994, to build a mock cinema (designed by Laura Hopkins and Neil Robson) for Clair De Luz. Now, with Blood, a pseudo film noir with a Latino feel, he has persuaded Hopkins and Robson to re-create the stage to look like Cinemascope. Reminiscent of Robert Lepage's Coriolan, the action is performed in a narrow band of stage cutting off the actors from the waist down. A gauze screen allows filmic "titles" to be flashed up at the beginning and end of the show. Cheaply made but effective backdrops are reconfigured just as you would in a film studio, then transfigured by Nigel Edwards's life-giving lighting. The startling effect is to make spectators sit up and take notice of the way director and writer desire the text to be read.

CLARE BAYLEY

n Booking details: 'Rat in the Skull' 0171-836 5122; 'One Flea Spare' 0181-743 3388; 'Blood' 0181-985 1361

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