Theatre: A winter's tale with a dark and bitter heart

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The Independent Culture

CHRISTMASSY WEATHER straight out of a children's snow-shaker; an explosion of party streamers; fireworks whizzing across the sky - has the pantomime season begun early in Derby? No, these effects are from Masquerade, a darkly enchanting production of Mikhail Lermontov's 19th- century Russian drama, brought over on a short tour of England by Lithuania's Small Theatre of Vilnius.

Director Rimas Tuminas's vision of the piece enfolds a piercing tragedy of jealousy - reminiscent of both Othello and The Winter's Tale - in a wild, whirling world of snowstorms, waltzes and dotty, elegant slapstick. Frequently on the point of being smothered by the comedy, the heartbreak finally stands out all the more acutely for having had such an indecorous fight on its hands.

In the depths of his baseless jealousy, the nobleman Arbenin (whose reckless middle-aged despondency is magnetically conveyed by the brooding Arvydas Dapsys) characterises life as a masked ball where you spin around with apparent happiness. At home, afterwards, as you survey your crumpled costume, all you can feel is tiredness. It's not surprising that his disillusion is expressed in such an image, for it is at a masked ball that his murderous suspicions are incited by a mix-up over missing bracelets.

Caught up in this tangle of mistakes are his young wife Nina, in Adrija Cepaite's heart-stopping performance a vision of impulsive, vulnerable loveliness, Vytautas Sapranauskas's hilariously vain and accident-prone chump of a Prince, and the Baroness (Inga Burneikaite) who is an odd mix - a tie-wearing follower of George Sand's feminism and an abjectly lovelorn devotee of the idiot Prince.

Around the central tragedy, in a model of puckishly precise stagecraft and ensemble flair, the company create a bizarre, free-for-all universe where, for example, the corpse of a top-hatted gambler, a card still held between his stiffened fingers, keeps ludicrously bobbing back no matter how intensely his colleagues try to drown him in the icy water. There's a running gag, beautifully executed by Andrius Zebrauskas's little comic servant, in which a snowball gets bigger with every appearance.

The scenes have a headlong physicality, whether in the bitter confrontation between Arbenin and the Prince, staged as a game where they contemptuously toss cards at each other over the snow, or in the piteous way Arbenin, to make an example of her, flings his dying wife on to a plinth where she stands like a statue, her white-gloved hands folded modestly over each other.

Anyone who knows the The Winter's Tale cannot help but be reminded of the similarly wronged Hermione. The terrible difference here, though, is that this statue does not come back to life. In Lermontov's world there are no miraculous second chances.

The publicity leaflet is charmingly designed as a trompe l'oeil parcel wrapped up in red ribbon with the greeting "A present from Vilnius to the people of Derby". The Christmassy associations are not, in fact, inapt, for there is certainly festivity of an exhilaratingly alternative kind in this show. At all events, the motto of the enterprise could be: don't beware Lithuanians bearing gifts.

At Derby (01332 363275) until 13 Nov; then Warwick Arts Centre (01203 524524) 16-20 Nov; then Gardner Arts Centre, Brighton (01273 685447) 23-27 Nov.