THEATRE / The remains of the day: Jeffrey Wainwright on the Wrestling School's production of Howard Barker's Hated Nightfall in Manchester

In Howard Barker's imagining, history does not have to repeat itself to be farcical. In this new play, the last days of the Romanovs in 1917 comprise a bitter comedy, but even more farcical is the idea of History as Progress, marching in to the Future.

The premise is the recent discovery of two sets of unidentified remains among those of the Tsar and his family. Barker imagines them to have been Jane, a stolid maid, and Dancer, the royal children's mercurial tutor. Both are servants, both are caught up by history and, for opposite reasons, excluded from it.

Jane regards events with an appalled bewilderment that Jane Wood's beautiful performance makes palpable as her arms are dragged towards the ground at each new turn. Lugging in a heavy tureen in her perfunctorily tied apron, she is at once the comic stage domestic and the embodiment of simple toil. 'Perhaps,' she surmises, 'it's no bad thing to be a fool?'

'I so detest the wisdom of the people,' expostulates Dancer at that suggestion, and proceeds to rage at how humanity's ability to suspend its existence from a few proverbs 'enables it to tolerate its own annihilation'. This aphorism punctuates his effort to lug away the guts of the visiting revolutionary official he has just killed. Here is the contrast between the fleetness of Dancer's tongue and the eventual intractability of the world as it is. Though surprised that he can dispatch each of these formidably overcoated figures as easily as speak, the disposal of their corpses becomes a vast and muddy labour. He is comically reduced when he must try Jane's kind of work.

Dancer's ultimate debility lies in how far he is from being a fool in any intellectual sense. Loquacity is his delight - 'Words froth, and in the proper order' - but also his affliction, since he knows them for what they are. For instance, he has apparently taken the side of the revolution and the job of the Romanovs' executioner, but the very word 'side' sends him into paroxysms of disgust at the crassness of such a notion of commitment. He has such a sense of the encrustation of cliche that virtually every word he speaks ridicules the last. The self-styled 'doorman of the century', he has already foreseen how little the Bolshevik future - cartooned by the red telephone pole in Johan Engels' striking set - will resemble his ideal of human love just as he sees the family romance of the Romanovs as a tragically beautiful chimera.

But Dancer is not rendered immune by cynicism. He is painfully aware of how he is excluded even from such love as the royal family enjoys. In a wonderful passage he is seduced into a fantasy of Bohemian romance by the glamour of Anna Patrick's smudged Empress, hobbled both by crude desire and star- struck idealisation.

Dancer contains multitudes, including, arguably, too much of the play. But it is a fascinating role and its quicksilver variety is astonishingly played by Ian McDiarmid. Head back in the aquiline profile of the character's Romanised imagination; grovelling in frustration at the banality of his desire; voice chewing nasally over some despicable phrase, or falling lightly into tragic apprehension, he is remarkable in his detailed realisation of Barker's text. Whether, for all its extraordinary eloquence, the play finally shows what the love he speaks of and longs for might be, I am uncertain. It is probably in the hand that Jane extends to the stricken Dancer at the end - a love only in the grasp of fools?

The Wrestling School's production of 'Hated Nightfall' is at the Salisbury Playhouse until 19 March, then touring to Sheffield and London (Details: 0722 320333)

(Photograph omitted)

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