THEATRE / Best of Danish: Robert Hanks on Jeppe of the Hill at the Gate

It's one of the mysteries of the theatre that when a group of outwardly sophisticated people is gathered together in the name of art, they will split their sides at humour so crude - in both senses of the word - that it would look limp and ungainly in the Wheeltappers and Shunters' Social Club. If Jeppe of the Hill was no more than the sum of its drunk routines and domineering-wife jokes - however engagingly put over by Jonathan Coyne - you'd be better advised to stay at home; judging from the gales of hilarity blowing around the Gate, though, this is a minority opinion.

In any case, the play - written in 1722 by Ludwig Holberg, Denmark's greatest playwright - is rather more than that. Jeppe (Coyne) is a feckless peasant who drinks to forget his terror of his cuckolding, brutal wife Nille (Deborah Manship), and her leather strap, known as Eric Leatherstrap. When the local baron and his retinue find him asleep on the dung-heap, they decide for a prank to 'translate' him, washing and scenting him, shoving him into an expensive nightgown and popping him into the baron's bed.

On waking, he is persuaded by a mixture of flattery and terror that he really is the baron, but has lost his memory. After his first panic, he begins to enjoy the situation. Once he has had a couple of drinks, though, he starts to abuse his new power, ending by molesting the bailiff's wife and threatening death to practically everybody present. He's thrown back on the dung-heap, and the baron and his men enact a surreal punishment - this time convincing him he's been hanged for his crimes.

The ostensible moral is that you should 'Keep your station': the nobility are presented as sage governors, the peasants as irredeemable brutes. What the play is really about, though, is the corrupting influence of power. Jeppe is a likeable yokel until he thinks he can get away with hurting people, and then he turns into an arbitrary tyrant. The baron, superficially a more benevolent despot, is a philanthropist on principle; but individual peasants are for him purely objects, specimens for social experiments. If the humour isn't always very advanced, the black political thinking is ahead of its time.

There's nothing novel about the 18th century we meet here - it's the same one you see in Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress or Bernstein's Candide, the pretty, formal surface hiding moral bedlam. In Ben Crocker's clever, excellently acted production, the impression of calm is expertly enhanced by Jonathan Goldstein's pastiche score and Bernardette Roberts' lucid designs. There are many good things, too, in Kenneth McLeish's translation, written in a fractured verse that occasionally coheres into more metrically- conventional couplets. It's hard to believe that Jeppe of the Hill is really the Danish national treasure the programme says it is; but on this occasion, at least, it brings home the bacon.

To 21 May at the Gate, Shepherd's Bush, London W11 (071-229 0706)

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