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.

Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Arts and Entertainment
The audience aimed thousands of Apple’s product units at Taylor Swift throughout the show
musicReview: On stage her manner is natural, her command of space masterful
Arts and Entertainment
Channel 4 is reviving its Chris Evans-hosted Nineties hit TFI Friday

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
A Glastonbury reveller hides under an umbrella at the festival last year

Glastonbury
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miles Morales is to replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man

comics
Arts and Entertainment
The sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has stormed into the global record books to score the highest worldwide opening weekend in history.

film
Arts and Entertainment
Odi (Will Tudor)
tvReview: Humans, episode 2
Arts and Entertainment
Can't cope with a Port-A-loo? We've got the solution for you

FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets

Arts and Entertainment
Some zookeepers have been braver than others in the #jurassiczoo trend

Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant

Arts and Entertainment
An original Miffy illustration
art
Arts and Entertainment
Man of mystery: Ian McKellen as an ageing Sherlock Holmes
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Kitchen set: Yvette Fielding, Patricia Potter, Chesney Hawkes, Sarah Harding and Sheree Murphy
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Evans has been confirmed as the new host of Top Gear
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Top of the class: Iggy Azalea and the catchy ‘Fancy’
music
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.

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

    Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
    Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

    One day to find €1.6bn

    Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
    New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

    'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

    Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
    Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

    Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

    The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
    Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

    Historians map out untold LGBT histories

    Public are being asked to help improve the map
    Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

    Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

    This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
    Paris Fashion Week

    Paris Fashion Week

    Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
    A year of the caliphate:

    Isis, a year of the caliphate

    Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
    Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

    Marks and Spencer

    Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
    'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

    'We haven't invaded France'

    Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
    Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

    Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

    The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
    7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

    Remembering 7/7 ten years on

    Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
    Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

    They’re here to help

    We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?
    Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

    Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

    'Heritage' is a loaded word in the Dixie, but the Charleston killings show how dangerous it is to cling to a deadly past, says Rupert Cornwell
    What exactly does 'one' mean? Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue

    What exactly does 'one' mean?

    Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue