THEATRE / Back to ABC in the Tower of Babel: Pentecost - The Other Place, Stratford; The Green Parakeet - Greenwich Studio; August - Theatr Clwyd; The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie - Strand; Gaucho - Hampstead

IN 1990 David Edgar joined in the revisionist stampede of left-wing playwrights and produced The Shape of the Table, a premature and unconvincing conversation-piece on post-Communist Europe. There is nothing premature about his new, and equally topical, piece, Pentecost, which follows in the shattered aftermath of that false dawn. It is the richest text to arrive on the English stage since Stoppard's Arcadia; and a drama on the politics of language that ranks with Friel's Translations.

At its centre, unusually for Edgar, is an art object: the remains of a 12th-century fresco discovered in an abandoned church (and former torture chamber) somewhere on the east European border. The name of the country is unimportant; what counts is that it is a place that has somehow preserved its national identity through centuries of neighbouring invasions. Edgar declares his linguistic theme in the opening exchanges between a primly pedantic British art historian (Charles Kay) and the local museum curator (Jan Ravens), who peppers the details of her discovery with phrases like, 'I should cocoa]' What she thinks she has found is a pieta that introduces the techniques of perspective and individualised emotion a century before Giotto, which, if true, would locate the origins of the modern world in this Balkan Hicksville.

For her, the fresco promises a huge gain in self-respect for her downtrodden country. But it means different things to different people, and becomes a magnet for their competing interests. The Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches are already staking claims, followed by an American academic, Leo (irresistibly reminiscent of David Lodge's Morris Zapp, in Linal Haft's boorishly erudite performance), who is engaged in a crusade against art restoration.

Under the supervision of a flashily americanised Minister for Conservation (Glenn Hugill), the action flares into a fierce debate on the authenticity of the painting, and whether it should remain a devotional object or begin a new life on the museum circuit, a godsend to tourism. At which point, Edgar abruptly raises the stakes by turning the play into a hostage drama. A group of stateless refugees storm the church and issue an ultimatum demanding Western citizenship, whereupon the fresco acquires yet another leading role, surpassing the hostages as a bargaining chip. In the end, this being 1994, the refugees get nothing, and (on the orders of the Minister) the fresco is reduced to rubble.

With its central gear-change and polyglot double cast, you might expect the play to sink under its own weight. Given Edgar's decision to track the art-versus-human life argument to its limits, there was no avoiding narrative complication. But what emerges from Michael Attenborough's superbly cast production is a passionately well-informed international work, held on course by a governing idea: the eternal recurrence of the Tower of Babel.

This idea not only underpins the dialogue (mostly written in English as a Second Language); it also crops up in echoing details, such as a terrible story of starving children eating their own name-tags, reflecting the fact that restoration of the fresco would mean erasing the signatures of torture victims. The play ends with the chastened Leo and the curator exchanging simple words out of a book. Perhaps if mankind re-learns its ABC, it may start getting things right.

During the Cold War, Schnitzler's The Green Parakeet was a favourite on the Czech stage, and in Margarete and Julian Forsyth's version this 1898 masterpiece proves itself as timely as ever. Set in a Paris tavern on the eve of the fall of the Bastille, it is also the ultimate pub-theatre play.

Here, under the direction of a thespian landlord (Bill Stewart), actors play criminals and revolutionaries for audiences of aristos, who delight in being insulted and threatened in the supposed name of radical chic.

Within this framework, Schnitzler weaves an amazing series of meta-theatrical variations. A real murderer (Eddie Marsan, evoking Peter Lorre), engaged for a homicidal role, is dismissed as unconvincing by the leering connoisseurs. A devoted married couple perform a pimp-and-whore routine. A villainous anti-royalist breaks down in mid-tirade, driving the landlord to moans of despair at the artistic shortcomings of his troupe.

Then comes the news of the mob's triumph; and, with a wonderfully plotted climax, the game turns into reality, with the result that the Green Parakeet -like satire houses all over post-1989 eastern Europe - is out of business.

Deploying a violently active company of 17 in a pocket stage, the show is also a directorial triumph.

The alliance between Anthony Hopkins and Theatr Clwyd is plainly a love match, but its first offspring - August, Julian Mitchell's Welsh adaptation of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya - offers small reason for celebration beyond its benefit to Clwyd as a house-filling star event. What it proves is that however successfully Chekhov adapts to Ireland, he remains a stranger in Wales. References to the Band of Hope and characters marrying outside the chapel strike no answering Russian chord; and most of the Welsh detail is lavished on servants and retainers, leaving the principal figures unchanged.

The one exception is the ineffably languid Helen, whom Mitchell converts into an American child bride (Lisa Orgolini) who is always running about the place. Only Hugh Lloyd, as the lugubrious mouth-organ playing 'Pocky' Prosser (alias Telegin) achieves a performance that is both Welsh and Chekhovian. Leslie Phillips effectively turns the visiting professor into a figure of fun, forever trumpeting his hatred of Wales. Other principals in Hopkins's production are seriously undercast.

As Ieuan (Vanya), Hopkins has an arresting first entrance: a crumpled, rolling figure, drink in hand, making several false starts at lighting a cheroot, and then drowning out Pocky's domestic confessions with a raucous chorus of 'Bread of Heaven'. You want to know what he will do next. He is unpredictable and dangerous. And before long, he has coarsened into a sardonically aggressive oaf, whom you cannot imagine as a dutiful estate manager. In short, he is not the disenchanted idealist of whom Chekhov said, 'He wears marvellous neckties'. As Astrov, Hopkins might have been magnificent: Vanya is not his role.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Jay Presson Allen's adaptation of the Muriel Spark novel, returns as piercingly funny as ever in Alan Strachan's revival.

New to me is the contrast between the gym-slipped Brodie set and their inspiring teacher. Where you see the girls (look out for Jackie Morrison and Liz Ewing) picking up experience at high speed, the fascist romantic heroine -in a peach of a performance by Patricia Hodge - emerges as an incurable innocent.

Based on the career of Howard Marks, the Balliol drug baron, Doug Lucie's Gaucho shows a millionaire Oxbridge pusher, Declan, entertaining a pack of old cronies in his Aegean hideaway so as to prove that even his activities are morally superior to those of British MPs, journalists and businessmen.

Tim McInnerny plays him with style: and despite Lucie's Socialist credentials, you are left to the right-wing conclusion that whatever Declan does is OK because he has breeding. A sour and disingenuous piece of writing, very well performed.

'Pentecost', The Other Place, Stratford, 0789-295623. 'The Green Parakeet', Greenwich Studio, 081-858 2862. 'August', Theatr Clwyd, 0352 755114. 'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie', Strand, 071-930 8800. 'Gaucho', Hampstead, 071-722 9301.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
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?
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
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.

    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?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015