The Edinburgh Festival: Official Theatre: Love and human remains

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The Independent Culture
ONE OF the first things the Japanese did after the bombing of Hiroshima was to build two bridges over the River Ota: the Yang bridge and the Yin bridge - symbolising male and female. If a damaged organism is to renew itself, it must begin by acquiring genitals. Go to Hiroshima in search of devastation, and you will find beauty - not least the semen-like flow of night traffic over the bridges.

The Edinburgh audience learnt this, and other imagination-stirring details, from Robert Lepage, whose latest epic - The Seven Streams of the River Ota - opened the festival's official programme on Monday. But the audience who heard about the bridges had turned up the following morning for a press conference where Lepage unveiled his plans for a seven- part work drawing on the separate disciplines of architecture and opera-singing, and working through a multiple stylistic sequence so as to reflect a worldwide response to the dropping of the bomb. The audience who saw the show itself can have had little idea of this.

In its present embryonic form it consists of only three parts, though (unlike Lepage's previous works-in-progress) they do tell a rudimentary story. It is the story of Jana, a fictitious Czech-Jewish photographer, first seen as a child captive in Theresienstadt, then surfacing in her twenties in Greenwich Village, and finally emigrating to Hiroshima where she finds peace in the place of desolation. In a Bunraku-puppet prologue we also meet a goatish old emperor whose search for an aphrodisiac leads to the discovery of gunpowder. Atomic rumblings in the background plant the idea that somehow love and destruction are inseparable.

Jana's life is presented in flashback in a setting - the

veranda of her house - that brilliantly encapsulates the central theme and its narrative tributaries. Situated on the river where the streams converge, its translucent sliding doors can open on to a series of interiors, or serve as screens for projections or silhouette performance. Of all Lepage's magic boxes, this is the masterpiece. One room becomes a mirrored cell, endlessly replicating the crowds fleeing the Germans in accelerating panic. The room reverses into a stage for Jana's disappearing act with a concentration-camp conjurer ('Can you make my mother and father reappear as well?'). Her only friend, an opera singer, hangs herself, and the death scene from Madam Butterfly becomes another disappearing trick.

In New York the cell turns into a communal bathroom where Jana sits unobserved as the other lodgers shave, bathe, squat, and bash guitars. From the Brechtian death-camp scenes, the style changes to the magic realism of off-off-Broadway. Arriving in Hiroshima, the house becomes a street, where one door becomes a photography booth and another a screen projecting the fantasies of anyone facing the camera.

By this time, the style has changed to boulevard farce, and with it the narrative focus. From the start, the drama of the public past runs alongside a story of the personal present, following Jana's relationship with Hiroshima's Canadian community. They now take over the stage, and the atom bomb gives way to the condom. The farce is not well-plotted: it leaves you wondering why the indomitable old heroine is wasting her time with these trivial people. This highlights the piece's central flaw: Jana has no continuous identity, and seems no more than a device for registering the impact of Hiroshima from different vantage points. Admittedly, as Lepage says, text is only one form of scenic writing; but this piece does largely depend on the scaffolding of linear psychology. At the moment this is lacking. Perhaps there will be a transformation on the road to Manchester and Riverside.

Gluck's heroes, said Mozart, would shit marble; and the same goes for the characters of Goethe's Torquato Tasso, which records the poet's descent into madness while surrounded by loving friends and patrons at the Court of Ferrara: five acts in the French neo-classical manner with never a sag in elevated decorum. But this was the red-hot piece that Peter Stein put on during the Baader- Meinhof years (in the early Seventies) to expose the gagging of the artist by state patronage.

No such agitational purpose underpins Robert David MacDonald's fine Lyceum Theatre production (which ended last night); but what comes through is hardly less engrossing. Goethe, poet and Weimar court official, splits himself in two - as the paranoid Tasso, and as the Duke's Minister Antonio Montecatino, who dismisses the arts as useless. From this springs the quarrel that leads to Tasso's downfall - at which point he recognises his adversary as his best friend.

With such a piece all is won or lost in the first few minutes and MacDonald shamelessly uses them to grab your attention: first with voluptuous Edwardian dresses (Hilary Baxter) and a dazzling white classical terrace backing on to an autumnal park (Julia McGowan); then through comic business with two flunkeys and a Duke (Andrew Wilde) who is more at home with dogs than with humans. Tasso (Henry Ian Cusick) arrives, adjusting his glasses, to the sound of a cuckoo. By this time, the force of MacDonald's translation has begun to grip, and with it, the double action of the piece.

Most obviously, you see the protagonist retreating into a world of crazy suspicions and grievances. Simultaneously, it appears that the suspicions are not so groundless after all. Tasso's two female admirers have their own self-interested reasons for doting on him. When he mentions his work, they haven't a clue to what he is talking about. Tasso hands the manuscript of Jerusalem Delivered to the delighted Duke. 'My work,' he exclaims, 'as in a sense it is.' In this company, the quietly watchful Antonio (Mark Lewis, superb) emerges as the only other honest character. You can still see what Stein was driving at.

Peter Zadek's Berliner Ensemble production of Antony and Cleopatra, which occupied the King's Theatre for three nights (three hours, 40 minutes, no interval), unites the worst habits of East and West German staging. A coldly businesslike determination to knock the heroes off their pedestals combines with the self-admiring perversities of the star director. On a desert-yellow set (Wilfrid Minks) that makes no distinction between Egypt and Rome, the mighty pair (Gert Voss and Eva Mattes) appear in a sex-besotted haze that obliterates all their other qualities. Where they rise to anger, it is invariably over trivialities; and they have no existence out of each other's company. Zadek makes no attempt to animate the cinematic battle scenes, and even the party on Pompey's galley is over before it gets started. Even without the modern costumes, this is tourist Shakespeare.

'The Seven Streams of the River Ota': Meadowbank Sports Centre, 031-225 5756, ends tonight.