THEATRE / The best little whorehouse in Dublin

WHEN Brendan Behan's The Hostage arrived on the London stage in 1958, most spectators shared the opinion of its main character that 'the IRA and the War of Independence are as dead as the Charleston'. Behan by that time was into his fatal role as an Irish clown, better known for his suicidal binges than for his work; and it was the reputation of The Hostage as an anarchic Dublin rave-up - almost as good as having a jar with the man himself - that catapulted Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop production into the West End.

Behan thus inherited the curse of Shaw, Wilde and O'Casey as an Irish Cassandra of the English-speaking theatre. He had urgent things to say, and the public fell about with laughter - until the Troubles returned, when the laughing stopped and an unofficial embargo descended on his work. Michael Bogdanov's RSC revival of The Hostage coincides with the peace initiative, but I doubt whether anyone will still mistake this story of the tit-for- tat killing of an English soldier for a harmless bit of fun.

Looked at autobiographically, it mirrors Behan's predicament as a Republican activist who had got to know the British and concluded that working people are all much alike. There is no reconciling those two positions, and every aspect of the play reveals a man at war with himself.

Take the setting: a former Republican stronghold turned shebeen and brothel, with a former IRA commandant as its caretaker. What does that represent: the growth of tolerance and realism in place of bigotry and bloodshed; or the decline of a heroic country into a knocking shop? It means both; and the shape of the piece is dictated by the fact that it is backing two mutually exclusive alternatives. Littlewood may be partly resposible for its ramshackle structure (the original Gaelic version, An Giall, is said to have a tighter script). But there is no point in complaining about the unmotivated entrances and exits, or the habit of stopping the show for a jig or a ballad. Only by fracturing the narrative can the two lines develop without cancelling each other out. As it is, they supply the conflicting dynamic in a tragi-comic comment on Ireland that far transcends autobiography.

The key element in the production is its relaxation - a term I never thought to apply to a Bogdanov show. However frenzied the action, there is enough air around it for someone to call a halt and break into song. The way is always open for irony to puncture idealism, the past to engulf the present, and a virginal love affair to blossom in the whorehouse. Dermot Crowley as Pat, the terminally disillusioned 1916 veteran, emerges as the master of anti- climax, relishing some of the funniest lines Behan ever wrote. He is magnificently partnered by Dearbhla Molloy as the blowsily voluptuous Meg, bulging out of black satin as she keeps her girls in order, and then mounting a table to deliver 'Who fears to speak of Easter Week' with a surging passion that transforms her into a monumental emblem of patriotic defiance.

Idealism is brilliantly contrasted by John Woodvine, as Monsewer, the crazy old Anglo- Irish house-owner forever locked into his memories of the Uprising, and Eoin McCarthy as the ruthlessly inexperienced IRA diehard of the present. A bleak meaning gradually takes shape amid the farcical chaos as the deadline for the hostage (Damien Lyne) approaches. Everyone is kind to him; he can have anything he wants - drink, free sex, teddy bears. But no one will save him by turning informer. And when he dies it is by the same kind of bungled accident that kills Bessie Burgess in O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars. Yet again, Ireland fails to escape from history.

In his musical adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray Neil Bartlett presents the story through a 1920s reunion for Wilde's old friends in his favourite suite at the Savoy. Ada Leverson (Maria Aitken) is there, along with Robert Ross, Reggie Turner, 'Jenny' Mavor (a former rent boy), and a pretty young Guardsman (Benedick Bates) who has been hired to play Dorian. The show's governing idea is to unmask the novel as cryptic confession, with Wilde's own secret life running in tandem with that of his hero. The guests thus double as Dorian's admirers; while the disintegration of his picture (represented by a stage mirror) becomes the subject of Nicolas Bloomfield's score.

That idea is ahead of Wilde. 'Play me some mad scarlet thing by Dvorak]', cries Lord Henry in the book, as though citing the ultimate in compositional decadence. Would that Bloomfield had achieved the real thing; but his six strings and harp do little more than evoke an ominously festive atmosphere; rising at the murder of Basil Hallward (Tim Pigott-Smith) to a cello echo of 'If you want to know the time, ask a policeman'.

A generalised verdict on Bartlett's text would be that he has opened a box of tricks which he cannot control. Why is the group engaged in these amateur theatricals? How can Dorian simultaneously represent Wilde himself and the boy of his dreams? There are plenty of other questions; but the main point is that Bartlett has opened the box. And in meta- theatrical exercises of this kind it is the detail that counts, not the generalities. On these terms, the show is full of flashing insights, hilarious comic transitions, and passages when Wilde's dreams of a world fit to live in eclipse the aesthetic posturing and sexual slumming. Better one ground-breaking experiment like this than any number of dutiful revivals.

In an outstanding week for regional Shakespeare, Bill Alexander's Birmingham production of The Tempest opens with the ship's crew suspended on a swing, gently swaying in an atmosphere of petrified silence. They hardly dare speak. When they do, every whispered word is a thrilling event; and when the storm does strike, the whole theatre becomes the sinking ship. Wonderful. Having rescued that notoriously unplayable scene, Alexander salvages the clowns by treating their recruitment of Caliban as a drinking orgy in which there is no pretence that the lines are funny. A white Caliban - Richard McCabe, lumberingly agile as Laughton's Quasimodo - becomes the slave of a dark- skinned Prospero and Miranda (Jeffery Kissoon and Ginny Holder), whose other servant, Rakie Ayola's child-like Ariel, still shivers at the name of Sycorax. Fresh detail apart, the performances are motivated in extraordinary detail, and repeatedly crystallise into poetic imagery - unfailingly intensified by Ruari Murchison's set which embraces the island within two circles of sand and sky.

At Clwyd, Helena Kaut- Howson stages Macbeth on a slatted rake (by Pamela Howard) lit from below to suggest the nearness of a spirit world through the earth's fragile crust. The witches (led by Jennie Stoller) are supremely at home in this space, rolling down the slope like children in a park, and jabbering overlapping spells round the cauldron under a skull-masked Hecate before summoning the apparitions in a screen like a huge weeping eye.

Nothing, meanwhile, could be less unearthly than Timothy West's Macbeth; first seen wearing full pack and gaiters, and taking every supernatural development in his professional stride. Murdering Duncan is all in the day's work. Planning Banquo's assassination simply requires a military briefing. When he does fall apart, the effect is tremendous: not least in the sight of the phlegmatic recluse calmly philosophising over his wife's death, erupting into skin-saving panic at the news that the forest is on the move. Alexandra Mathie packs a lifetime's guilt into the sleepwalking scene; Richard Lynch is the first Malcolm I have seen who makes sense of the England reunion.

'The Hostage', Barbican, 071- 638 8891. 'Dorian Gray', Lyric, Hammersmith, 081-741 2311. 'The Tempest', Birmingham Rep, 021-236 4455. 'Macbeth', Theatr Clwyd, 0352 755114.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
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.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste