Theatre 1953 Almeida Theatre, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
When you go to see a play by Shakespeare, the temptation to say "How very like Shakespeare all of these characters are sounding" is notably rare. One of the reasons that Craig Raine remains a remarkable poet but a non-starter as a dramatist can be seen from the fact that 1953, his audacious update of Racine's Andromaque, appears to be populated by a convention of ardent Raine-imitators, all of them equipped with a pronounced flair for those trademark "Martian" similes.

A defence of this linguistic non-differentiation might claim that the fixated, unrequited love that afflicts the play's personnel has brought them to much the same psychological pitch. But that falls down when you consider a character such as Oldenburg, who is not part of this daisy chain of obsessives, has similar verbal habits. Within the space of a few minutes, he is likening saliva at the corners of the mouth to "crumbs of brewer's yeast in beer" and evoking the noise of Nazi footwear in the phrase "heels clicking like a typing pool".

Patrick Marber's production is very much better directed than was the play's first airing at the Glasgow Citizens' Theatre. It's a tribute to the performances here that, by and large, they convince you that the striking, out-of-the-way images have been plucked from the moment and aren't the result of an uncommon presence of mind during emotional turmoil. Emma Fielding is quite superb as the besotted Princess Ira, particularly towards the close as she fights to fend off mental disintegration with a show of precarious, hard glamour and cool. A crumpling baby face in a Nazi uniform, Adam Kotz as her unrewarded slave brilliantly brings out the neurotic impotence of a man who, with a sort of dazed detachment, has watched his moral sense atrophy in a universe governed by sick-joke irony.

For me, though, it's the quieter effects in the script that make the most impact, such as those little wry twistings of cliche like "the knight in the shining armoured car" which studiedly removes the shine from the concept of chivalric rescue.

The adaptation transports the action from the aftermath of the Trojan conflict to the year 1953 in an alternative reality where Hitler has won the war and Mussolini has bequeathed the kingdom of Italy to his son, Vittorio (the excellent Jason Isaacs). Raine isn't trying to emulate Robert Harris's Fatherland, so quibbles about his being a world that seems to have got round to inventing the tea bag but not the atom bomb are perhaps beside the point. All the same, my imagination balks at the idea, crucial to the plot here, that any claimant to the English throne would have married a Jewess. She is the Andromaque equivalent, Annette LeSkye, widow of Hector and hostage to Vittorio Mussolini.

The update makes her dilemma both less plausible and less sympathetic. Hitler wants her little boy sent to Germany, where he will almost certainly be exterminated. Annette can prevent this by succumbing to the advances of Vittorio, her husband's murderer. What in Racine feels like a genuine question of honour here begins to seem like further proof that, in the parenthood department, the English Royal Family lacks a certain warmth.

n To 30 March. Booking: 0171-359 4404