THEATRE / An auld Scots ballad of good intentions

THE DEATH of Lindsay Anderson, following that of John Dexter and Tony Richardson, leaves only one survivor of the 'sons of George Devine': William Gaskill, whose revival of Arden's Armstrong's Last Goodnight concludes the official Edinburgh Festival programme. Gaskill and Dexter directed the play's 1965 English premiere which starred Albert Finney and Robert Stephens. There are no comparable names in the Royal Lyceum Company, but at last this magnificent play really works. Armstrong is famous for being written in two 16th- century Scottish dialects: a factor that banjaxed the original Chichester audience, but which forms no obstacle on the Edinburgh stage. The only question is why it has taken so long to reach Edinburgh, when its central character, Sir David Lindsay (author of The Three Estates) ranks as the patron saint of the festival's drama.

The most elaborate of Arden's 'ballad' plays, Armstrong takes its title from a ballad hero - a freebooting Border outlaw, hanged on the order of James V of Scotland. The piece was originally designed as an oblique comment on the post-colonial Congo - with the relationship between Johnny Armstrong and the King's herald, Lindsay, reflecting that of the wild Congolese premier, Patrice Lumumba, and the Secretary- General of the UN. Public memory of that savage episode has long since faded, but if anything the play is now more timely than ever. Subtitled 'An Exercise in Diplomacy' it will survive for as long as there are people who try to disarm violence with verbal argument.

Arden is saying complicated things through a story as direct as a folk-song. And the sovereign quality of Gaskill's production is that it touches all the detail of tribal feuds, court intrigue, and fears of an English war without obstructing the main narrative drive. For all the weight it carries, it remains essentially the story of a chieftain and a courtier who sink their differences and approach one another man to man, only to be driven back into their official roles, which leads to treachery and death. Henk Schut's design brilliantly transmits the drama's polarities with a naturalistic forest flanked by abstract metal representations of a castle and a palace: two worlds, neither better than the other.

Stuart Hepburn plays Armstrong with a raw inarticulate pugnacity, gradually disclosing the lion-hearted warmth, cunning, and social grace of a natural leader. David Robb's Lindsay moves in the opposite direction; a gracious, silver- tongued diplomat, overcoming all opposition by the gentlest means, but finally - after betraying his protege to the King - slumped in defeat with nothing to say. Border and court society each generate their own theatrical rhythms, which meet and embrace, leaving you to work out which is the guiltier in the eternal defeat of good intentions.

Those who dismiss the modern German stage as a place of all scenography and no content could hardly back up that opinion with a better example than Peter Handke's The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other - a Berlin smash-hit which arrived for four nights in Edinburgh's refurbished Festival Theatre. From his first play, Offending the Audience in the 1960s, Handke has always held the human race at arm's length, but at least his early pieces were fired by powerful ideas. In the wordless new 90-minute show (a cast of 40 said to present 400 characters, but who's counting?), he emerges simply as a people- watcher, observing crowd behaviour without trying to make sense or shape out of it. On a Magritte-like set by Gilles Aillaud (derelict car on a sea-rimmed patch of desert), the varieties of humanity come and go in all their inexhaustible insignificance.

Scenographically speaking, Luc Bondy's production is the work of a master. It establishes an atmosphere of apprehension which is kept alive by imperceptible lighting changes, and periodic wind-storms that blow the cast off stage. Bondy also creates a succession of micro-dramas which lift the scene above literal reportage. Two men cross over, appear to recognise each other, return, and then flee in panic. A frustrated netball player climbs the pole and delightedly puts the ball through the net over and over again like Eeyore's balloon. A girl evades male sexual harrassment only to be assaulted by a toy car. A Lufthansa crew march and countermarch over the set pursued by a man playing aeroplanes. This catalogue could go on and on. Wednesday's audience began by laughing appreciatively and then fell silent on realising that there was nothing else to the show. Apart from a compulsive habit of bringing episodes to an end with pratfalls and muggings, no pattern of any kind develops, and you are left feeling that the company could easily busk away for another 90 minutes if need be.

Off Out, Gill Adams's new Hull Truck piece at the Assembly Rooms, takes a comfortlessly convincing look at the domestic side of prostitution. Asthmatic young Danny spends his days glued to the television set, sometimes briefly joined by his mother, June. They never discuss her work; but when a new sofa arrives from her masterful admirer, it's clear that she will be having even less time for family life. Seedy domestic bickering alternates with the blood and brutality of the streets. Characters fit the stereotypes of ageing tart, drug-addict, and pimp, but they are also fully realised individuals and fearsomely well played by Damian Cruden's cast of four.

At the same address Henry VIII: Diary of a Serial Killer betrays its origin as a company-devised show. It opens as a Buckingham Palace tour; but once the bluff king's ghost (Ralph Oswick) has replaced the guide, John Abulafia's production turns into a homicidal knees-up, featuring a 'Be My Queen' game show, and a royal consultation with the Immaculate Conception dating agency. Mostly the show confronts you with a clenched smile. When this relaxes, you find yourself in the company of five comically and musically resourceful actors.

'Armstrong's Last Goodnight', Lyceum, 031-229 9697. 'Off Out', Hull Truck Theatre, Hull, 0482 23638. 'Henry VIII', Queen's Theatre, Barnstaple, 0271 327357.

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