THEATRE / Meltdown in Battersea
Sunday 13 March 1994
As you would expect from the Redgraves, this is an outfit with a social viewpoint, but it seems to have come together through a network of past friendships and alliances; not least in the case of its opening show. The Flag is adapted from the novel of Robert Shaw, whose play Cato Street Vanessa Redgrave championed in 1971. Shaw was a heroic actor and a penetrating novelist who never succeeded in bringing the two sides of his talent together as a playwright. In The Flag he told the factually based story of a Socialist vicar who tried to put the levelling doctrine of the gospels into practice at the time of the General Strike. Shaw's adapter, Alex Ferguson, in researching the period, has focused on the destitute army of demobbed Flanders veterans who could find no place in the country they had fought to save. The result is a play that raises the unappeased hunger for social justice through the twin images of an epic march of the dispossessed and revolutionary fireworks from a village pulpit.
A right-on leftist tract? Not at all. The piece shows the war's corrosive effect on the frozen lake of British custom. When it cracks, it is not along the expected class lines. The red-hot priest gets appointed by a lady of the manor. Other gentlefolk are keen Labour supporters; and among their children, you find an Eton boy struggling to throw off his indoctrinated superiority. A General, seared by memory of the trenches, becomes the vicar's closest ally. And the main conflict takes place among the wandering outcasts - between a conscientious objector, Rockingham (the flag- carrying McEnery), and a vengefully crazed squaddie (Stewart Howson) who lost his dearest friend on the Somme.
The play reaches a savage climax when its two lines of action converge; but, in Corin Redgrave and Gillian Hambleton's production, it does not seek to deliver a linear narrative. Rather it proceeds in impressionistic bursts, switching between wartime nightmare, Orwellian realism, juvenile sexual experiment, hilarious trivia of parish life, and impassioned exhortation from the clerical hero. But is he a hero? Redgrave has the revolutionist's ability to drop verbal bombshells as if talking simple common sense, and to shrug off his enemies without a flicker of personal hostility. Beyond that, he allows you simultaneously to look at the character as an indomitable man of faith and as a quixotic figure of fun. It is an amazing performance, and an apt centre for a show that puts England in the melting pot.
Linear theatre gets into another twist in Kenneth McLeish's Omma, a conflation of several ancient texts and a conflagration of living actors. Tim Supple's new company at the Young Vic show themselves well able to encompass the impersonal style against which his first cast rebelled. But not to much sustained effect. The aim of this production is theoretically unarguable. Given the huge distance between ourselves and the Greeks, the only way of approaching them is to stand further away. For that reason Stravinsky set Oedipus Rex to a Latin text, and Michel Saint-Denis directed it in costumes 10ft high. From which it is a far cry to the sight of four actors in business suits, intoning the text into microphones and slowly revolving to give
everyone a fair view of their expressionless faces.
The bulk of the show consists of extracts from Antigone and Seven Against Thebes sandwiched between two chunks of Oedipus the King. This yields some ironic echoes, such as separate addresses to the Thebans from a succession of doomed rulers. But the mythological substratum remains untapped. What you do feel is repeated frustration as one fatal machine after another embarks on its course, only to be halted to make way for another. The effect of turning Choruses into solos is to give them a schoolmasterly ring, by no means offset by the continuous background of percussive doodling.
Linear or not, drama takes place in time, as proved here in the urgent duologues between Antigone, Ismene, and Creon (Josie Ayers, Conrad Nelson, and Paul Meston) when living rhythms momentarily possess the stage, to electrifying effect. The lighting, by Paule Constable, is beautiful.
Alice, the medical officer heroine of Neal Bell's Elsewhere returns from the Vietnam war with a mission to tell her patients the truth about death and to find out what lies on the other side. This involves her in flouting the conventions of her profession, and her creator in reversing every dramatic cliche that crosses his path. This, alas, has not saved him from succumbing to the current American craze for guardian angels. But he is manifestly an original voice, and Louise Jameson is stunning as his death-fixated healer.
'The Flag', Bridge End, 071-228 8828. 'Omma', Young Vic, 071- 928 6363. 'Elsewhere', King's Head, 071-226 1916.
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