The way of this world is silly and stylish

THEATRE
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The Independent Culture
IT'S A part that was clearly marked out for her and she has seized it with two heavily manicured hands. As the rich widow, Lady Wishfort, in the National's new production of The Way of the World, Geraldine McEwan gives quite the most gloriously silly performance in London. We see her first, in Phyllida Lloyd's modern-dress version, in a peach dressing-gown, a towel wrapped round her head, face caked in white, false eyelashes flashing, whinging that: "I look like an old peeled wall."

When she returns, to a roar of approval from the audience, she wears a spectacular dress of red roses, with fluffy hair, doll-like make-up and tottering high heels. Many actresses would be upstaged by the costume. But with a growling, simpering, tittering excess, McEwan finds a Knightsbridge ghastliness to match. When fretting how best to look when Sir Rowland arrives - "nothing is more alluring than a levee from a couch in some confusion" - McEwan spins out into the realms of pure comic vanity. We don't care what she does, we just don't want her to stop.

To get to these sunny moments, in Lloyd's entertaining, if uneven, production, you have to cut through the dense thickets of Congreve's plot. Someone here is half-brother to a sister of someone else's wife's mother. Lloyd increases our disorientation by giving Congreve's London a swanky contemporary setting. The second act, traditionally set outside in St James's Park, takes place in a fashionable art gallery with a backdrop of Rothko-esque paintings.

How much we like the characters largely depends on how well they handle Congreve's dialogue, which is why the production moves in and out of focus. As Millamant, the close-cropped Fiona Shaw strides round the gallery in flowing black trousers, speaking with a verve and a warmth that suggests she was born in the 1670s. As Mirabell, Roger Allam is more careful, but no less clear, parcelling out his witticisms with precise hand gestures. The emotional highpoint is when these two meet in the attic, and Shaw lists her conditions of marriage. She squirms with horror over the names she refuses to be called - "joy, jewel, love, sweetheart". Considering the complicated nonsense we have to follow - even before we get to the sublimely daffy McEwan - this adult candour is a welcome antidote.

In the opening of A Patriot For Me, James Wilby comes on to an empty stage, lights a cigarette and stands there smoking. After a while a second officer enters. Wilby offers him a cigarette. He accepts. Wilby lights it. They smoke. Time passes.

The RSC's new production of A Patriot For Me begins at seven and doesn't finish till after 11. Officers, Hofburg guests, flunkeys, privates: each public scene in this large-scale revival has its orchestrated crowd; scene changes become choreographed interludes; a 90-page script becomes a four-hour production.

John Osborne's ground-breaking play about a gay officer in the Austro- Hungarian army mixes themes of Empire, class and sexuality, but in Peter Gill's scrupulous, stately production, the gay one prevails. What was oblique in 1965 is plain in 1995. It's no big deal today to see naked male lovers on stage, but this openness weakens the plot, which depends on concealment. Act I builds to an ending that shocked the Lord Chamberlain into insisting that Osborne "Omit the whole scene". Here, by the time (Redl) Wilby gets into bed with a soldier, you feel as if the postman has finally delivered a letter you were promised weeks ago.

With Redl, it isn't his sexuality which isolates him. It's his humble origins. But the other officers are closer to uniformed students than members of an arrogant elite. The contrast isn't there. Glance at the original cast list and you see what's missing. In 1965 an officer like Von Taussig was played by Edward Fox.

Gill stages the scenes beautifully: the terse opening duel, the restaurant, with the private cubicle downstage and the other officers dining upstage, the tacky splendour of the transvestite ball, with Dennis Quilley as the plumed Baron von Epp, pouting, winking and - on the first night - ad-libbing: "Her earring's fallen off, you've excited her so." But Osborne spreads his play over 23 scenes, two decades and five cities. It needs someone to draw it together, not to unpack it any further.

There's something naturally soft-focus about Wilby. We're not convinced he's taken the tough path from son of a clerical officer to colonel on General Staff. The big speeches elude him too. What is apparent - from this production and the National's revival of Inadmissable Evidence with Trevor Eve - is that Osborne requires leading actors who let fly with a rage and acuity that is positively scary. He'll take no hostages. Revivals must first ask if they have someone of that quality.

In Ibsen's play The Master Builder, which is steeped in the playwright's personal concerns, a young woman, Hilde, arrives at the home of a successful architect and inspires him to fatal new heights. It's a horrible part to play. You are clearly representative of something else. A spirit, a life-force. Then you have to act as interlocutor to a colossally self- absorbed playwright, sorry, architect.

Remarkable then, that the outstanding aspect of Peter Hall's new production is Victoria Hamilton's performance as Hilde. It's her first West End role. She strides through the front door, wearing walking boots and carrying a rucksack, with a suddenness and immediacy that is quite unselfconscious. The opposite, in fact, to Alan Bates as the architect, who is thoroughly modern. He gives an immensely attractive, fidgety performance - flicking his curly hair, drumming his fingers, tugging at his ear lobe - but his manner is histrionic, his voice constantly aware of contradictions and ironies. The difference in performance is reflected in the production, which hovers between the realistic and the metaphysical without plumping for either.

The Orange Tree at Richmond continues to dig up neglected plays with an enjoyable revival of The Maitlands by Ronald Mackenzie. Sam Walters' cast does a highly effective job in evoking the impoverished genteel atmosphere of a seaside town: a world of tea-cups, private pupils and dusty armchairs. Mackenzie packs The Maitlands with humour, character and incident, and had he not been killed in a car-crash (aged 29), his plays might have become the definitive theatrical account of life between the wars.

'The Way of the World': Lyttelton, SE1, 0171 928 2252, in rep. 'Patriot': Barbican, EC2, 0171 638 8891, in rep. 'The Master Builder': Theatre Royal, SW1, 0171 930 8800, to 6 Jan. 'The Maitlands': Richmond Orange Tree, 0181 940 3633, to 25 Nov.

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