The Critics: the Theatre - Blanchett loses the peace

Plenty Albery, London Oroonoko RSC Other Place, Stratford The Birthday Party Piccadilly, London
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The Independent Culture
When David Hare was only 31 he wrote and directed Plenty. It went from the National to Broadway, and seven years later it became a movie with Meryl Streep. Now, 21 years on, Plenty receives its first major revival with Cate Blanchett in the lead. Some regard the play as a modern classic.

Whether it's the fault of Hare, Blanchett or the director Jonathan Kent, this Almeida Company revival unmistakably proves it isn't. Too often, the dialogue amounts to Blanchett's character, Susan, voicing an attitude from out of the blue. She tells us that she's living in hell, by which she means that she's living in post-war Britain; that the men she knows are very limited; and that she is not stupid enough to work in advertising (which she does). She wishes she could recover the intense experience of the war years when she was flown behind enemy lines for Special Operations. None of these assertions are adequately dramatised.

We see Blanchett's Susan in France in 1943, and then in Brussels in 1947, in London later that year and in the 1950s and early 1960s. On the Embankment, Blanchett asks a man she barely knows to father her child. In her Pimlico digs, Blanchett tries to think up an advertising slogan for shoes. In her Knightsbridge house, Blanchett embarrasses the dinner guests in front of her husband.

The play presents Blanchett's very particular character (and her pronouncements) as a symbolic portrait of post-war Britain. It's more than a little lopsided. For every romantic who couldn't acclimatise after the war there was a realist grateful to return home to peace.

It's not hard to spot that Plenty is a series of animated tableaux that turn on single premeditated plot points. The designer Maria Bjornson concludes most of the dozen scenes with black screens closing in from four sides like shutters in a camera. The snapshot endings provide that extra melodramatic touch that reminded me (unavoidably) of the Victorian narrative pictures of Augustus Leopold Egg.

It isn't just that Blanchett's character is a mouthpiece, it's that the play itself is ungenerous in its sympathies. A 17-year-old girl called Dorcas needs pounds 200 to have an abortion. In this production, her scene is played for laughs: Dorcas is stupid and doesn't know that Persia is the same place as Iran; she has a high-pitched giggle and talks in a posh accent. So, unlike our beautiful, long-legged lead, who has such problems in readjusting to post-war affluence, Dorcas and her abortion need not trouble us.

Hare also pokes fun at a courteous Burmese diplomat and his wife. At the dinner party at which Blanchett and her husband scream at each other, Monsieur and Madame Aung are shown to have an imperfect grasp of English idiom (whereas, naturally, our grasp of Burmese is faultless). The laughs that Plenty milks from its audience demonstrates its own thoroughly British sense of superiority towards marginal figures.

Blanchett is at her best when suggesting to us that she's in a Forties black-and-white movie. She's cool, composed and clear-voiced. She crosses her legs, tilts her luminous face into the light and exhales a stream of cigarette smoke. Her performance comes apart as her character embarks on its rapid and under-dramatised disintegration.

Jonathan Kent indulges his taste for high-volume performances, allowing Blanchett to fly at speeches that (as Streep showed in the movie version) need careful modulation. People who only go to the theatre to see film stars will leave thinking that theatre can never compete with cinema. Not in this way, it can't. Julian Wadham plays Blanchett's diplomat husband and Richard Johnson plays the British ambassador. Both are excellent.

In their powerful new production of Oroonoko, the adapter Biyi Bandele and the director Gregory Doran reintroduce many of the elements of Aphra Behn's 1688 novella that were cut from 18th-century stage adaptations. Bandele and Doran focus intently on the early scenes in Coromantien, West Africa, when Prince Oroonoko is trying to wed the beautiful virginal Imoinda, while his father, the King, demands that Imoinda visit his own bedroom first.

By shifting the emphasis back to the first half of the story, the production can magically present a West African warrior culture that convinces us with its unsentimental mix of honour, ceremony, cunning and cruelty. Doran's cast draw us deeply into this world, through the simplicity of the staging (which matches the clarity of the narrative) and the transparent commitment of the performances. The production elements - Juwon Ogungbe's music, Alex Oma-Pius's movement and Terry King's fights - join seamlessly to transport us to another world.

When white slave-traders appear and fire a pistol shot, the intervention from an alien culture hits us with explosive force: it's as if we've been ripped out of one self-contained drama and thrust into another. Oroonoko and Imoinda are captured, separately, and sent as slaves to Surinam, in the West Indies. After the interval, the characters find themselves transported to a world that is more familiar to us than them.

Oroonoko is fascinating as a pioneering text for the abolitionist movement and as an awkward reminder of black complicity in the slave trade. Doran and Bandele get the tone right from the first scene. The staging is deft, stately and evocative. Nicholas Monu plays Oroonoko as a compassionate hero with a strong sense of his own worth. The two female leads, Nadine Marshall's Imoinda and Jo Martin's Lady Onola, the quick-witted former mistress to the king, are equally impressive. It's the best production I've seen at the RSC this year.

Joe Harmston's revival of Pinter's The Birthday Party runs 100 minutes without any breaks. The director's brisk, engaging approach strips away the brooding nastier tones of the play, leaving it (simultaneously) funnier and more insubstantial. Prunella Scales is a treat as the florid, nervous Meg, running a seaside B&B that's visited by Timothy West's orotund Goldberg and Nigel Terry's smilingly sinister McCann. In this atmosphere, the constant, repetitive dialogue - about how the cornflakes are, and whether it was light or dark when the husband got up - owes less to Samuel Beckett than to the amiably inane way parents talk to small children.

'Plenty': Albery, WC2 (0171 369 1730) to 10 July. 'Oroonoko': RSC Other Place, Stratford (01789 295623) to 6 October. 'The Birthday Party': Piccadilly, W1 (0171 369 1734) to 31 July.