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.

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