The Fringe / The very idea of a play: Sarah Hemming reviews a revival of McGuinness's Carthaginians

Click to follow
TRYING to bring an issue into focus is a perilous business for a playwright. How do you tackle the seriousness of your subject without bludgeoning, boring or depressing your audience? How do you offer them a good night out without trivialising the issue?

While Bill Morrison's new trilogy at the Tricycle uses an epic family drama to take on Northern Ireland (see Paul Taylor's review, opposite), it is interesting to consider Frank McGuinness's very different approach in Carthaginians, revived by Falling Angels (Greenwich Studio, SE10). Set in Derry, the play presents us with a group of characters, each of whom has been deeply affected by Bloody Sunday, each of whom is working out private griefs and failures. But McGuinness sidles up to their revelations, using comedy, conflict, and mythical echoes (linking the city with Carthage) to create a many-layered, yet deeply elegiac piece of theatre. McGuinness revels in the specific possibilities offered by the stage. The action is set in Derry graveyard, where four women in self-imposed exile wait for the dead to rise. This setting creates an unforgettable image and raises the pitch of the drama: everything happens in the context of this poignant situation. Yet much of what happens is ridiculous, spurred on by Dido, 'Queen of Derry', a camp gay youth who ministers to the needs of the women and tries to draw attention to their plight. When Dido decides that a play about the Troubles is the answer and has them act it out in the graveyard, McGuinness gives us The Burning Balaclava, a wickedly funny cod 'Irish play', that works as parody, and yet, perversely, serves to remind of what is really going on in the streets below.

Danny Carrick's sensitive production surfs the changing moods of the play skilfully, switching from playfulness to pain in an instant. The excellent cast, too, are bold enough to go with the swell of the play, carrying off even the difficult 'night of the dead'. Each character veers towards a different sort of madness, and this is beautifully controlled, particularly in Claire Dalkin's sorrowful Sarah, Mary Barnes's surly Greta and Anna Kirke's fragile, desperate Maela.

How very different in approach from this poetic, moody piece is David Henry Wilson's Death of a Giant (New End, NW3). Wilson uses naturalism and narrative to tackle attitudes towards the disabled.

When we meet Jim and Harry they have just been installed in a bedsit. Both, we learn, were soldiers shot on service in Northern Ireland - Jim in the back, Harry in the head. One can't walk, one can't talk, so together they make a team. Determined not to be looked down on, they combine their talents to create a giant, whose public appearances soon attract media attention.

The play starts reasonably well - its painstaking naturalism does make a point, taking the audience step by step through the characters' frustration. The tender, yet vexed relationship between the two men is well drawn by Zach Vanderfelt and Bruce Barnden. But it runs into real trouble when Zach starts to fear that his real, disabled self will be revealed: however good Wilson's intentions are here, the effect is condescending - he reduces Zach to the very shame about his condition that the play is trying to combat.

At the other end of the scale is Peter Weiss's The Investigation (Arts Threshold, W2). Weiss's 1965 piece uses no drama, poetry or narrative, but simply edits and reproduces the harrowing evidence about Auschwitz that emerged at the Frankfurt war crime trials. Arts Threshold responds with a clear, dignified, quiet production that never embellishes, but allows the accumulative weight of Weiss's piece to work.

'Carthaginians' runs to 2 May (081- 858 2862); 'Death of a Giant' runs to 9 May (071-794 0022); 'The Investigation' runs to 22 May (071-262 1629).