The Weavers Gate Theatre, London

THEATRE
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The revival of The Weavers, Gerhart Hauptmann's 1892 play about the rebellion of the starving Silesian cotton workers in 1844, prompts two almost contradictory responses. On one hand, gratitude that The Gate exists to promote such work. On the other, bemusement that anyone should want to unravel this old yarn.

The production (directed by Dominic Cooke and designed by Robert Innes Hopkins, who were behind the much-lauded Hunting Scenes from Lower Bavaria) is exemplary. The Gate's seating has been raised, so that the audience now sits around a balcony, and the action takes place below in an oppressive grey pit with 10ft-high walls. This becomes in turn the counting house, a mill, the local inn and the parlour of a weaver's cottage.

When the action shifts to the factory-owner Dreisegger's house (the first target of the weavers' revolt) the stage itself is lifted up, an ironic acknowledgment of his elevated social status. But underneath the wooden platform on which Dreisegger strides about, entertaining the vicar and his wife, you can still see the looms from which he has made his fortune. When the workers unite to sack his house, they enter not through the door like his guests, but through a trapdoor in the floor, like Greeks launching an attack from the Trojan horse.

The huge cast - 25 players, most of them doubling or even tripling - look like the kind of peasants painted by Brueghel. The Silesian dialect has become a variety of northern accents, and Cooke elicits some grittily elegant performances from his actors - or, rather, one grittily elegant performance, so seemlessly and selflessly do they work together.

The text is another matter. Even Anthony Vivis, the translator, strikes a defensive pose in his programme note. "To appreciate The Weavers as a piece of theatre," he declares, "it is best to forget the play's historical importance as a key text of Naturalist drama and share the intimacy, humour and dignity of its hard-working characters." The trouble with this analysis is that Hauptmann simply doesn't care about character in the sense that most of us understand it. Like Brecht, who drew inspiration from him, he is not interested in the psychology of the individual.

The Weavers offers some compensations for this. It is not every day, after all, that one witnesses the effect of an entire village crowding on to a stage. Ultimately, though, there is only so much communal misery one can take ("I wouldn't even say no to a bucket of pigswill" is about as cheery as it gets), and the lack of focus on any single protagonist makes for a detached evening.

Continues at The Gate, London W11, to 23 Nov (Booking: 0171-229 0706)

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