The London Fringe: Back to basics

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The Independent Culture
The British Library must be seething with theatre directors on the hunt for old gold. Scarcely a month goes by without some theatre company blowing the dust off an ancient text. This month is a bumper one. Two Restoration comedies return to the stage (Sir John Vanbrugh's The Provoked Husband and Catharine Trotter's Love at a Loss); James Shirley's Caroline tragedy The Traitor surfaces at the Bridewell later this week; and at BAC, director Alasdair Middleton has just given the kiss of life to the 16th-century Gismonde of Salerne in Love.

Middleton (who discovered the text in a bookshop) has unearthed an intriguing curio. Written in 1567 by five lawyers who took an act each - a sort of dramatic 'consequences' - Gismonde of Salerne in Love emerges a remarkably tight piece, dispensing with all five acts in an hour and a half. You can't see the joins either (though Act 2, written by George Almont, is more fluent than the others).

The play tells of a father's unwholesome obsession with his daughter and the heartless revenge he exacts when she takes a lover. In theme and preoccupations it most resembles the Revenge tragedies, dealing with jealousy, forbidden love and oppressive family ties with gory conclusions. But it lacks the intrigue and psychological complexity of a Ford or Webster; rather, it's as lean as Racine, moving from point to point without so much as a moment of sub- plot to disturb the headlong rush of tragedy.

Characterisation is slim, but the play seethes with sexual frustration, and Middleton's handsome, well- acted production catches the play's dark mood, containing both its classical references and its lurid heart.

Sunnier altogether is Vanbrugh's The Provoked Husband (New End Theatre), his late riposte to his more famous Provoked Wife. The play mirrors his earlier piece, opening with a husband bemoaning his married state, but this time it's the wife who is the renegade. Vanbrugh offers am interesting debate about marriage, and whether sexual infidelity is the only important transgression.

The play drips with Restoration baubles - country bumpkins, rakes on the make, egads and pshaws - and is nimbly performed in Jon Harris's sparkling production. Particularly strong are the two couples at the play's heart who bring out beautifully the ambivalence of its tidy ending.

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