The London Fringe: Side-splitting stuff

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Ours is a tragic age, and so we refuse to take it tragically. I don't remember who wrote that, but couldn't stop thinking of it after seeing Women Beware Women this week at the DOC in Kentish Town. A refusal to take tragedy tragically is one of the outstanding characteristics of Christopher Geelan's production - you wonder at times if he hasn't taken the refusal too far. In the final scene, as Middleton's elaborate mechanism of injury and revenge winds down, and the corpses start piling up, it all becomes inappropriately hilarious.

Until then, though, the flirtation between comedy and tragedy, managed by a sharp- witted cast, works excellently. Middleton offers a reasonably straightforward moral, about the incompatibility of lust and power, but it sits uncomfortably with his erratic scheme of deceit. Nobody's motives here are unambiguous - money, sex and sheer love of the game all play their parts; but so do unselfish affection and a sense of honour.

Something of the complexity is caught in Bridget Kimak's set, with its Esher- like tessellation of dancing lizards. But it's also implied by the way morbidity rubs shoulders with humour in the acting: when the incestuous uncle Hippolito (Michael McGrath, cadaverous in DMs) duels with Gregor Singleton's cheerful, wideboy Leantio, the lurch from half-comic swordplay into testosterone-charged brutality is an efficient piece of staging, but it also suggests intriguing depths in both men.

If you doubt the wisdom of Geelan's attitude to tragedy, then you should compare and contrast Andrew Pratt's production of When We Dead Awaken, at the Man in the Moon. Ibsen's final play - celebrated sculptor meets model who was his inspiration - is cursed by some hefty symbolism. Rather than play this down, Pratt tries to extend Ibsen's symbolic intentions logically; so the scene, right up to the mountain-side climax, is set inside the walls of the health spa where the action (if that isn't too strong a word) starts, apparently to emphasise that the settings are reflections of a state of mind.

It's a horribly difficult play, and everybody involved deserves your sympathy. At the same time, it's hard not to feel that Pratt has muddied the waters, undermining the set's deliberate simplicity with some offputtingly elaborate staging - hands and faces poking out of hatches in the back wall of the set, by-play with a bottle of champagne - so that there is something essentially bogus about rather over-literal interpretation of the final scene.

The tragedy in Romania, also at the Man in the Moon, is more real and immediate. The actress Magdalena Buznea, who came to London a quarter of a century ago, tells the story of her exile and the horrors of life under Ceausescu, interspersing it with songs and extracts from plays. It should be moving, but it's too calculatedly sentimental to come off; that's a minor tragedy in itself.

'Women Beware Women', to 12 March, DOC, London NW5 (071-485 4303). 'When We Dead Awaken' and 'Romania', both to 12 March, Man in the Moon, London SW3 (071-351 2876).

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