Theatre: A pared-down Pinter and a dose of demagoguery

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The Independent Culture
FOR THEIR first visit to England the Toneelgroed Theatre Group from Amsterdam are showing their range with two wildly contrasting one- act plays.

Harold Pinter's Ashes to Ashes has a bare, almost clinical, set. Buff, by the group's artistic director, Gerardjan Rijnders, has a set of detailed clutter, overloading with a working kitchen, books and knick-knacks suggesting the domesticity of artistic chaos.

Changing sets between plays was clearly impractical so two venues are used. The audience is bussed out of Plymouth to a mysterious destination - which turns out to be the Drama Hall of Plymouth University - for Ashes To Ashes, and returned to the Theatre Royal's studio theatre, The Drum, for the second half of the bill.

There are other contrasts. The Pinter play has spare, taut, enigmatic dialogue, and the audience listens carefully to pick up clues. The Dutch play, on the other hand, is a verbose and ranting monologue that leaves nothing to the imagination.

Ashes to Ashes is verbal fencing between a married couple, examining dreams, defending territory. At the end there is a suggestion of memories of the holocaust.

At the back of the main set another appears, consisting of a square of lawn, bare except for a watering can and a cricket ball. This back set is never used, and we are left to put our own interpretation on its existence.

The dialogue is pared down beyond the usual Pinter, as though the playwright is saying "make of it what you will".

Ashes To Ashes is precisely performed (in Dutch) by Lineke Rijxman and Pierre Bokma with a running script (in English) at the back of the stage - tricky to do with Pinter pauses, but technically perfect here.

Buff introduces a jaded critic expounding on a state of the theatre which has no relation to real life. "A five-hour uncut Chekhov!" he moans. "There is real life on every street corner. My mother was real. I never see her on stage."

The critic rants on, seemingly oblivious to his son who, after frantic masturbation, trashes the room for heroin, finds and injects the stuff and later commits incest with his mother before strangling her.

Buff has two targets and only hits the outer rings. The critic's attack on the theatre has the substance of an argument, but realism on stage would be too boring to contemplate. Of course theatre is artificial, and a good job too.

The other butt is the intellectual who can overlook the real life of his benighted family while pleading for realism on the stage. But the irony here is crude and obvious, as the critic ignores his wife's squeaks for help, steps over her dead body and uses his shaking son as a prop to illustrate his polemic.

Buff is only sustained by the outrage and wit of the ranter as he slashes wildly at the acting profession, subsidised theatre, drama schools, and pretentious plays.

But his argument is hardly current. "Anyone for tennis?" plays disappeared decades ago (though there is still The Mousetrap, and Agatha Christie plays crop up in every repertory season in all their snobbery). Has Rijnders not noticed that ours is the age of the musical?

Titus Muizalaar excels at the monologue (in English). Lineke Rijxman takes a battering as the mother, showing a neat appreciation of comedy (while she is being raped she is still flicking dust with a rubber-gloved hand). Fred Goessen's desperation in the son is graphic, but played for laughs. He can perform a ballet with his bare bum.

At The Drum, Plymouth to 20 June (01752-267222); Riverside Studios, London, 23-27 June (0181-237 1111)

Allen Saddler