THEATRE / A heartbreaking class act

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The Independent Culture
PHAEDRA, the wife of King Theseus, conceives a fatal passion for the chaste Hippolytus which drives him into exile and death. That, according to Euripides and Racine, is her tragedy. But it might have been worse. What if, as usually happens, Hippolytus had found the queen not bad-looking and swept her off from the Troezen palace to a Notting Hill bed-sit where he is soon bored rigid by this woman going on about love all the time? That is the Rattigan version.

True, The Deep Blue Sea does not correspond at all points to its ancient model. There is no incest taboo between Hester Collyer and her ex-fighter pilot lover, Freddie; nor, even to the most class-bound of Rattigan's 1952 spectators, is the marriage of a vicar's daughter to a judge on a par with marriage to the royal offspring of the sun god. For all that, the same tragic rhythms are pulsing away under the golf club and dinner party small talk; the prying neighbours and Cockney landlady are lineal descendents of Racine's confidantes; and British understatement intensifies emotion no less than the Parisian rules of bienseance. Here, as never

before or since, West End naturalism touches hands with classical ritual.

Previous productions (I missed the original Peggy Ashcroft version) have obscured these qualities by submerging the piece in English manners. Time and a Czech-born director have now come to its aid. The manners of these characters are no longer ours (Freddie's were obsolete even when the play first appeared); and the play has dated in the positive sense of becoming aesthetically distanced. Likewise the casting and set of Karel Reisz's production. From matchwood cupboards to metered gas fire, William Dudley's design offers a museum replica of post-war bed-sit land, with a door to the stairs inset in a translucent wall that forestalls any surprises. Hester arrives and finds Freddie reading her suicide note to a drinking chum: what matters is not her shock entrance, but how she responds to the situation. The supporting characters, sympathetically shown as well-meaning people in the grip of fossilised moral attitudes, are additionally defined by the Ibsenite figure of Miller, the disgraced doctor - a character supposedly beyond Rattigan's range, played here by a great Polish actor, Wojtek Pszoniak, who puts the sheltered British in the full glare of post-holocaust Europe.

From these details of yesterday's Britain, the central partnership emerges with immediate and devastating power. Look at Hester's dialogue on the page, and you can hear the blackmailing inflections and see the brave little smiles that actresses of the Celia Johnson school have brought to the role. No trace of this sub-textual arm-twisting disfigures Penelope Wilton's heartbreaking performance. She is candid, tough-minded, witty, and, body and soul, the prey of Aphrodite. When she cracks up, abandoning herself to uncontrollable weeping for the whisky-sodden Freddie but still wanting to clean his shoes, she ignites a tragic beacon that beams right back to Athens. Such emotions are beyond Freddie; but, as Linus Roache plays him, barricaded inside a flak jacket, moustache, and Battle of Britain slang, he too has been mortally hurt. He walks out on the relationship; but in signing on as a test pilot, it is he, not Hester, who is committing suicide. So the play does pack one last surprise.

'One day,' remarks the resolutely un-suicidal young Violet in Lucinda Coxon's Waiting at the Water's Edge, 'you look at the sea and it's waiting.' At that moment, but not for much longer, she is working as a parlour maid for a tyrannical French widow, whose son, Will, takes a fancy to her. In one scene he makes a compass for her by floating a needle in a glass of spirits; an action that incorporates several previous scenic elements - toys, drink, love tokens, and the ideas of travel and navigation - in a single resonant image. That is how the piece works. It has an eventful plot; but if all Coxon had to offer were the story of how Vi accidentally killed Will in mid-orgasm and exorcised her private demons by impersonating him as a strike-breaker in Nova Scotia, I should not be here to tell the tale.

The plot works as a moral fable, supported by fastidiously eloquent dialogue, close domestic detail (Wales in the 1920s), unsentimentally affectionate characterisation, and images, like that of the compass, which weave patterns of meaning across the advancing plot. Innumerable plays depict the grip of the past on the present, but Coxon's approach is new and extraordinarily moving - most of all in the awakening scenes for Suzanna Hamilton and Amelda Brown. Polly Teale's production is a stylistic triumph.

That is more than can be said for Mike Alfreds and Neil Bartlett's production of The Game of Love and Chance. The idea of cross-fertilising Marivaux with Noel Coward sounds a promising way of cracking an obdurate French nut; as indeed it proves with Stefan Bednarczyk in the marginal role of the heroine's brother, languidly surveying the erotic mayhem from the security of his grand piano. Otherwise, the style is all over the place. The plot calls for a double reversal of masters and servants; that is complication enough, without burying the intrigue under a mixture of musical comedy, farce, commedia acrobatics, and meta-theatrical chat with the spectators.

The most obvious perversity is the casting of Maggie Steed as the romantic lead: a veteran specialist in oblique derision guaranteed to stifle ardour in the bud. Actor and character make no contact whatever. Much performance talent is on the rampage, sometimes to hilarious effect in the partnership of Caroline Quentin and Marcello Magni; but only as part of a high camp joke at the expense of the play. For much of the time it is hard to follow what is going on, and harder still to care.

The unseen heroine of Marching for Fausa, by the Nigerian novelist Biyi Bandele, is a schoolgirl who vanishes into a government minister's harem: when her friends stage a protest demo, they vanish as well. This picture of African political crime will be familiar to readers of Chinua Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah: except that Bandele goes in for cowardly thick-witted villains, sneering sycophants, and brutally childish cops, ranged against a crusading girl reporter bursting with moral indignation. I can imagine the howl of protest that would go up if this were the work of a white author.

'The Deep Blue Sea': Almeida (071-359 4404). 'Waiting at the Water's Edge': Bush (081-743 3388), to 30 Jan. 'The Game of Love and Chance': Cottesloe (071- 928 2252), Fri, Sat, and continuing in rep. 'Marching for Fausa': Royal Court Theatre Upstairs (071-730 1745), to 6 Feb.