THE REVIEW Disappearances Salisbury Playhouse Studio, Salisbury

Paul Taylor sees his new play `Disappearances'
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Is writing poetry a self-indulgent activity in a world of suffering and oppression? Does the poet have a duty to sign up to a cause - to swap the hedonism of free linguistic play for the hairshirt of activism? Or does the art form have its own built-in paradoxical vindication; the sublime uselessness of poetry being itself a form of political resistance and subversion? To put it bluntly, "Why should a poet be more responsible than a plumber?" These are the kinds of questions posed by Kaman, the celebrated self-exiled bard who dominates Disappearances, a powerful new play by Terry Eagleton which dramatises, through the dilemmas confronting this character, the conflicting claims of disengagement and commitment.

Elevated to mythical status in his Third World homeland (where he suffered imprisonment and torture for his opposition to the military dictatorship), Cambridge-educated Kaman has since withdrawn into a world of words and become "a kind of spiritual Secretary-General" on the global star-poets circuit. In Jonathan Church's admirably lucid and eloquent studio production at Salisbury Playhouse, Rudolph Walker may not be totally on top of all of Kaman's many lines but he has the measure of the man's flawed, larger- than-life personality and of the drunken, sardonically self-mocking performance Kaman has chosen to give of being the West's "pet savage".

If it's the fate of the post-colonial to find himself redesigned in the image of the colonisers, then Kaman gives them back this image artfully defaced. We see him squiffily teasing a constipatedly proper American PhD student (Mark Davison); his acceptance speech for a Cambridge D Lit veers into a fantasy stand-up routine which deviates with heretical abandon from the poeticisms of the prepared script. There's indulgence, arrogance and self-disgust in this comfortable / uncomfortable life of groupies, South Bank readings, and anticipated Nobel laureateship. Then revolutionaries from his homeland and the idealistic young daughter (Shalonne Lee) he has not seen for many years plead with him to use his influence to help overthrow the vicious regime out there and to be the symbolic founding father of a new order.

In a recent LRB review of a book dealing with the postcolonial condition, Eagleton, who is Thomas Warton Professor of English at Oxford, wrote that "When it comes to affirming an identity without colluding with the logic of those who have stripped you of it, you just have to try it and see what happens."

But it's the achievement of this play to pull you into the mind and guts of a man whose experiences compel him to the different view that those who take over power inevitably take over the values of their predecessors and that it's a poet's duty to "keep faith with failure". Involvement is a betrayal of those whom power has crucified.

Performed on Sarah Williamson's strikingly composite set (elegant study carpet shading out into scorched tussocks of grass at the back), Disappearances is more jaw-jaw than war-war (though jaw-jaw of a superior order). The drama in the play's second half does come to a nicely knotted head, however, when a smoothly blackmailing British intelligence agent simultaneously angers Kaman into wanting to take on a public role and makes that move impossible by threatening to endanger his daughter's career. Secretly protecting her interests entails, of course, plummeting in the girl's estimation; a painful irony that raises the emotional temperature of this intellectually agile, thought-provoking play.

To Sat 12 July. Booking: 01722 320333