THEATRE / A revenger's tragedy: Paul Taylor on Peter Shaffer's new play The Gift of the Gorgon, at the Barbican

Here's a paradox: a drama about the superiority of forgiveness to blood vengeance that leaves you murderously disposed towards the playwright-protagonist. It's about the only point in Peter Shaffer's The Gift of the Gorgon where your emotions are illuminatingly confused (though it's hard to say how intentional this is).

The new play comes with all the ponderous paraphernalia you expect from this author's work. There's the familiar high-toned but shallow juggling of dualities and the frequent harking back to Ancient Greek legend. Indeed, in a highly original mode of marital spat, the central couple get at one another by scribbling rival versions of the Perseus and Andromeda story, re-angled in a glaringly personal way. These are performed by masked and costumed figures on the large golden ramp that descends like a drawbridge and rests on the hero's pointedly altar-like desk. The symbolism is clunking but apt, since Edward Damson (Michael Pennington), the playwright in question, has a complex of convictions in which the belief that ritual bloodshed 'can clean things' has got mixed up with the idea that theatre needs to get back to its religious (Ancient Greek) roots.

The play is out to test to the utmost liberal enlightened notions about the value of forgiveness. Shaffer systematically trivialises all the issues raised, however, by presenting us with a luridly extreme rather than a hard case. On the subject of hard cases, I'm haunted by a television discussion a few years back in which the parents of children who'd been abducted, raped and murdered met with various professionals. On the one hand, part of you recoiled from the parents' hate-filled, warping obsession with revenge and reflected that they were just as much tragic victims of the atrocities as their dead children. On the other, the sight of Lord Longford sweetly preaching forgiveness as if this were some ethics seminar was almost equally rebarbative. Powerfully conveying the intractabilities of the problem, the discussion was like a first-rate play.

The Gift of the Gorgon can't approach such complexity because its mouthpiece of illiberal recidivism has no personal grief to revenge and (in Michael Pennington's ranting, repellent evocation of this scruffy, self-obsessed windbag) no redeeming feature, unless the character's crusading approach to theatre is to be regarded as one. The hokey structure of the play doesn't help either. The story of the playwright's success, followed by public loathing, his exile on a Greek island and his violent death are told in flashback by his widow (powerful Judi Dench) to the grown-up son he refused to acknowledge (a squandered Jeremy Northam), who is now researching a book on him.

There are lots of unintentionally hilarious pointers to the gruesomeness to come. Take the Act 1 cliffhanger - Michael Pennington has just done a flashback re-enactment of the stamping dance of Clytemnestra he performed fresh out of the shower once in Greece. Then Judi Dench's remembered laughter turns to panicky present tense tears and she brings that session to an abrupt, melodramatic halt. A climactic shower scene that will make the one in Psycho look like a Lux advertisement begins to seem likely.

The switches to excerpts from Damson's archaised, increasingly blood-thirsty plays are handled smoothly in Peter Hall's adroit production. They are hard to watch with a straight face, though. And you can see, from about a mile off, the outcome the drama is portentously plodding towards: that he who keeps the gorgon's head for himself will become the gorgon, and that it's only by creating a real-life scenario of monstrous sick-mindedness that the dramatist will be able to trigger in his wife the vengeful feelings she has resisted on principle. Monumental banality poses as profundity. The assiduously helpful dialogue ('And the light, ah yes, the light . . . so uncompromising. No wonder he loved it') offers patches of illicit pleasure. When his classicist stepmother mentions Aesculapius, the son gushes 'You obviously are very learned' - not enough, though, to challenge her husband's simplistic view that Greek tragedy is a straightforward endorsement of blood-letting.

The Barbican Theatre, London EC2 (071-638 8891)

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
TVDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
Arts and Entertainment
Laugh a minute: Steph Parker with Nigel Farage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Comic Ivor Dembina has staged his ‘Traditional Jewish Xmas Eve Show’ for the past 20 years; the JNF UK charity is linked to the Jewish National Fund, set up to fund Jewish people buying land in Palestinian territories
comedy

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?