Theatre: A licence to chill

Aunt Dan and Lemon

Almeida, London

The Winter's Tale

Drum Theatre, Brighton

A Saint She Ain't

King's Head, London

Far and away the best of the current spate of plays that link Nazism and the individual conscience - most recently, C P Taylor's Good and Esther Vilar's Speer - is Wallace Shawn's . First performed in 1985, and revived last week at the Almeida, Tom Cairns's superb new production chills its audience in a way few plays do.

Aunt Dan is a memory play, in which a sickly young woman, Leonora, or Lemon, compellingly played by the American actress Glenne Headly, lives alone and reads books about the Nazis. Her mind is full of her time as an 11-year-old, when she was very close to her parents' friend, Daniella, or Aunt Dan. Miranda Richardson plays Dan, a voluble Oxford academic, with the barely-concealed frustration of a zealot. Her vigorous right- wing opinions include a passionate defence of Henry Kissinger.

Cairns and his co-designer Robin Rawstorne use the Almeida to terrific effect: a white scrim turns to suggest indoors and outdoors and past and present, and acts as a screen for some haunting home-movie footage. The story moves back in time, as if through a series of Russian dolls. We meet Lemon's mum (kindly troubled Janine Duvitski) and businessman dad (a beaming, thoughtful Kerry Shale). Then we meet Aunt Dan's friend, Mindy (Amira Casar), an upmarket prostitute, who is paid to commit a murder. Mindy's recounting of her story to Aunt Dan leads to their affair.

Shawn's anecdotal style looks artless enough, but this is a slyly constructed piece that builds to a formidable attack on the audience's sense of its own compassion. Headly's hesitancies are perfect for Lemon. She wafts her arms in the air, and quickly establishes an intimacy as she drifts in and out of the scenes. Her dishevelled air of puzzlement, as she shares her problems with various current attitudes, leads on to some dangerous truths.

It's a shock tactic, of course. By speaking in neutral terms about the activities of the Nazis, Lemon blurs the categories by which we compartmentalise types of killing. As she says, in her gentle and unanswerable way: "the mere fact of killing human beings in order to create a certain way of life is not something that exactly distinguishes the Nazis from everybody else."

It would be quite wrong to view Lemon (as some have) merely as a disturbed right-wing character offering some loopy defence of Nazism. Her target is a good deal more subtle than that. One of Shawn's recurrent concerns as a playwright is the moral disengagement of the citizen from the consequences of the life he or she leads. Lemon's lonely persistent questioning leads her to pick away, to considerable effect, at the illusions that lie between what we are and what we like to think we are.

Fifteen years ago, I saw a touring production of A Midsummer Night's Dream by an unknown director at a small theatre in Eastbourne. Last week I saw a touring production of The Winter's Tale by the same director at a slightly bigger theatre in Brighton. In the intervening period he has become a star director of international repute.

But Declan Donnellan still does the same thing. He takes Shakespeare to bits, boils it down to key elements, and puts it back together again with a verve that makes it look new. His style of directing has its trademark tics: freeze frames, merging scenes and so on. It can reduce the actors to puppets and himself to the puppet-master. But it's a portable style that ensures that Donnellan travels far beyond seaside towns on the South Coast. His Le Cid, for the Avignon Festival, was in French. His Winter's Tale, for the Maly Theatre of St Petersburg, is in Russian. In neither is this a problem. Donnellan has hit on his own theatrical Esperanto.

His lucid, emotional and beautifully poised production of Winter's Tale mixes the epaulettes, sashes and peaked caps of the 1930s with the present day, as the vagabond Autolycus strolls on with a Walkman and touts videos. With this leeway Donnellan and his designer Nick Ormerod could have had the oracle at Delphos deliver its verdict by e-mail. Scenery is minimal: four chairs and a table. "Exit, pursued by a bear", the most famous stage direction in Shakespeare, becomes "Exit, pursued by a sound effect".

The production's dramatic intensity stems from the integrity of the Maly company's acting. Even in another language (or, perhaps, especially in another language) you can sense the sincerity. Pyotr Semack is outstanding at marking the wildly fluctuating emotions of the jealous husband Leontes. The other major factor is the psychological tension that Donnellan creates through his blocking. In the final scene at the Sicilian court, when after 16 years Leontes sees the statue of his wife, Hermione, Donnellan orchestrates the entire group to sublime effect.

Dan Crawford and the King's Head Theatre could hardly come up with a more timely rebuke to Trevor Phillips and the London Arts Board - who have failed to renew core funding for this indefatigable theatre - than with its new musical, A Saint She Ain't. With book and lyrics by Dick Vosburgh and music by Denis King, A Saint She Ain't is exactly the sort of show that would never survive the planning committees of larger subsidised theatres. There's one main reason for this: it is completely and utterly silly.

Which just goes to show why we need small offbeat theatres so badly. Vosburgh has taken the plot of the Moliere comedy, The Imaginary Cuckold, and grafted on to this a loving pastiche of Forties Hollywood comedies. Barry Cryer plays Snaveley T Bogle, a W C Fields-style drunk and misanthrope, with red nose, hip-flask and a dauntingly voluptuous wife, played by Pauline Daniels. "I'm Faye," she tells the handsome young lead, "but you can call me anytime".

It's a daffy mix. Michael Roberts and Vincent Marzello are two sailors on shore leave doing fast talking Abbott and Costello routines. Roberts reveals the depths of his inanity by needing to step aside and sing a verse of "Happy Birthday to You" in order to remember his name (and that, by the way, is Willoughby Dittenfeffer). The romantic leads - Rae Baker and Gavin Lee - manage as good a tap routine as you can imagine on a pub stage that they have to share with a a lamp post (which wobbles endearingly). Brian Greene is a swaggering father and Jessica Martin the sharp- minded girlfriend who knows what she wants. There's a stack of good songs, gags, malapropisms and terrible puns. Ned Sherrin directs two hours of brisk solid fun. In words of one cylinder, as the show would put it, it's a hit.

'': Almeida, N1 (0171 359 4404) to 5 June. 'The Winter's Tale': Theatre Royal, Plymouth (01752 267222), Wed-Sat, then touring. 'A Saint She Ain't': King's Head, N1 (0171 226 1916) to 30 May.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Kristin Scott Thomas outside the Royal Opera House before the ceremony (Getty)
film
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Channel 4's Indian Summers
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West found himself at the centre of a critical storm over the weekend after he apparently claimed to be “the next Mandela” during a radio interview
music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig and Rory Kinnear film Spectre in London
film
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

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

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
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.

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
    Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

    Philippa Perry interview

    The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

    Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

    Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?