THE CRITICS: THEATRE: The servants are revolting

The Maids Young Vic, London Germaine Greer's Lysistrata Battersea Arts Centre, London Nude With Violin Royal Exchange, Manchester Love Letters Haymarket, London
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The Independent Culture
Twice has been enough. I'm never going to another production of The Maids. Even the first one, two years ago at the Donmar, seemed to go on for a couple of hundred years. But Katie Mitchell's new production of Jean Genet's first play runs an achingly slow two hours and 20 minutes without an interval. In a hot, stuffy auditorium, I felt that entire swathes of the audience were willing the maids to hurry up and drink that poison.

It started well. The maids scurried round the dimly-lit bedroom like mice, whispering furtively as they took out the mistress's clothes. It looked as if Mitchell was bringing the same depth and comic attack that marked out her Endgame. And Mitchell has cast three strong younger actresses in the three roles. Anastasia Hille has an angular fretfulness as Claire; Aisling O'Sullivan, a hunched, compacted figure, suggested that Solange's whole physique has been warped by her economic servitude. When the mistress arrives, a strident Angela Clerkin puts a new spin on the mistress-maid axis by suggesting that, not long ago, this vulgar mistress might have been a maid.

The trouble with Mitchell's painstaking, archaeological approach to directing - digging ever deeper into the text - is that you can bury what's on the surface. Mitchell has taken Genet's gay fantasy and turned it into a studied piece of naturalism. The low-level lighting alone is a tribute to the Young Vic's policy on energy savings.

In the period gloom we pick out old-fashioned radiators and vases with lilies. As footsteps creak back and forth on the parquet floor, we are drawn into an increasingly turgid melange of themes. Yes, there's "ritual" and "ceremony" and "colonialism" and "power struggles" and "sado-masochism" and "Catholicism": it's all here if you have an A-level essay to write. It's just that it never has any stage vitality. We're trapped in an airless, hermetic world that Mitchell renders with infinite care and taste. Torture.

There's a tremendously liberating lack of good taste in Phil Willmott's production of Germaine Greer's Lysistrata: The Sex Strike. Back in 1971, during the Vietnam War, Kenneth Tynan invited the author of The Female Eunuch to write a new version of Aristophanes's comedy. It was only performed once - as a solo act by Greer herself, at the Public Theatre in New York. Now Willmott has produced a very British production, as saucy and breezy as a seaside postcard, a Hellenic version of Up Pompei that rivals Greer's racy, forthright version. Both catch the Aristophanic spirit.

Lysistrata is the one where the women refuse to sleep with their husbands unless the husbands on both sides stop fighting the Peloponnesian war. Willmott should receive some sort of Joan Littlewood award for the way he brings popular showbiz techniques to the subject of war. He treats Lysistrata as if it's a musical. The Athens bath-house, where the sex strike takes place, has the look of a cartoon. The Spartan Women jog down to the baths in their towels, chanting: "Spartan girls are fit and tough/ We can take it hot and rough." One reason why the action never lets up is that Willmott directs each scene as if it were a number.

Willmott's muse is clearly Marilyn Monroe, whom we hear singing on the soundtrack. The stage is awash with libido. There are loads of phallic jokes, and thankfully, none of them are coy. The women shriek and squeal and lust after the guys. The guys in turn find it as hard to come to terms with women having a point a view as they do in coming to terms with enforced abstinence. This Lysistrata is fast, broad, silly and profound. The cast perform it with tremendous energy as if the whole event is a party. I loved it.

Nude With Violin is yet another Coward centenary revival. Someone talked it up to me as an early version of Art, but whereas Art uses an almost-white canvas as a pretext for examining male friendship, Nude With Violin simply expresses its disdain towards modern art. But satire never works if the satirist is untroubled by his subject.

Thirty years after The Vortex and Hay Fever, Coward's comic devices have become routine. Every time the phone rings (which it does frequently) the multilingual valet answers it in a different language. As the silky valet, Derek Griffiths is highly competent, and Marcia Warren, the former wife of the painter, who manages to misunderstand every remark, is a delight.

But if the director, Marianne Elliot, had wanted to make this satire pertinent, she should have cast it as young as she could possibly could. If nothing else, Nude With Violin does the Royal National Theatre a good turn. Next week it revives another play of 1956, Look Back in Anger. Anyone who wants to discover what all the fuss was about need only catch Nude With Violin first.

Mr and Mrs Paul Newman have already played the roles. Now it is the turn of Mr and Mrs Charlton Heston to play the man and woman who correspond across a lifetime in A R Gurney's Love Letters. I only wish Mr and Mrs Reagan had had a go. It doesn't look hard: the two actors sit at desks and read from scripts. This the Hestons do fine.

This show is full of incidental interest. I didn't realise that the first vice-president of the National Rifle Association of America had an actress wife. (No jokes, please, about shotgun weddings.) Secondly, Charlton Heston's programme notes are a model of unembarrassed self- esteem: "He travelled to Vietnam twice ... [and] rode a chopper to remote combat areas that other entertainers could not reach ..."

Love Letters is a tribute to niche marketing: an American play with American actors pulling in an American audience on holiday in London. This is essentially a radio play, and for long stretches you could concentrate on those familiar handsome features. They may look as old as the century, but they have been lovingly preserved. I wish I could say the same for Charlton Heston. His boyish grins and frowns never exerted the same appeal as the gilded interior of the Haymarket.

`The Maids': Young Vic, SE1 (0171 928 6363) to 7 August; `Lysistrata': BAC, SW11 (0171 223 2223) to 4 August; `Nude With Violin': Royal Exchange, Manchester (0161 833 9833) to 7 August; `Love Letters': Haymarket, SW1 (0171 930 8800) to 1 August