THEATRE / Abroad, but very much at home

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The Independent Culture
Matthew Francis's programme note for The Prisoner of Zenda draws attention to the close cultural ties between Britain and Ruritania, and his adaptation confirms this with the arrival of the future Edward VII at the Strelsau coronation, chortling with self-satisfaction at having packed Victoria off to Scotland, and discovering a racing crony in the newly crowned Rudolph, whose suspicious familiarity with recent Derby winners almost brings the plot down in flames.

By such means, Anthony Hope's fine old yarn blossoms into a comic romance of Baedeker's Europe. Visitors and natives alike are members of the same international club. The only outsider is Nicholas Gecks's limping Black Michael, whose penchant for Hegel brands him as an irreclaimable foreigner. But Sapt, Tarlenheim and the other Elfberg top brass are Victorian gentry to the core; and even the Satanic Rupert (Mark Lockyer), when outwitted in swordplay, comes back with a strangulated 'Oh, I say]' as though cheated of his century by a caddish fast bowler. No wonder the roving Rudolph says he feels at home.

Francis's production is a splendid example of the old British custom (extending from The Revenger's Tragedy to Peter Pan) of projecting our unattainable fantasies on to a foreign playground, which - as in Lez Brotherston's set, with its Alpine travellers shooting a wild pig ('Ahhh]') at the foot of a castle staircase - is only England in fancy dress. The show is alert to all Hope's mock-heroic absurdities, and picks up reliable laughs from lines like, 'While you are above ground, Hell lacks a master'. But it is equally well stocked with comic action dialogue which James Bond would not disdain. 'You're not as nice as you look, Rupert,' observes the villainous Michael. 'Hardly possible, your Highness,' Lockyer grins back while dangling on a rope over a bottomless abyss.

The melodrama is intact; the doubling of the two Rudolphs (David Haig) is ingeniously managed; Mia Soteriou's music supplies at least one genuinely Balkan element; and the fights - with mops, stools, and washing- lines as well as swords - are the best I have seen this year.

Stephen King's Misery arrives in Simon Moore's version as a West End Christmas treat, perhaps on the grounds that one scene includes a Christmas tree. I took good care to miss the film version of this horror story, but it turns out that the effect is less frightening than infuriating.

In telling the story of a romantic novelist who is kidnapped by a fanatical fan, King was on to something interesting. His novelist, Paul Sheldon, has created a character - Misery - who vastly exceeds his own importance in the eyes of his readers. Killing her off is no mere literary choice, it is an act of criminal homicide, in the opinion of his captor. By making her a retarded nurse, King combines the imaginative certainty of childhood with the absolute power of a woman used to having men at her mercy. And crazy Annie Wilkes knows she is doing right. She is nursing a sick man, getting him back to work, and bringing Misery back from the dead - even if that means bullying, terror, and mutilation.

These and other fruitful questions are touched on in Moore's production; which is so well played by Sharon Gless and Bill Paterson that, despite the victim's agony, his tormentor seems often to be in the right. The new book she makes him burn probably was dreadful. His first attempt to resurrect Misery was a narrative cheat. It is also fascinating to see Sheldon's imagination awakening to his enforced task; and the transformation of jailer and prisoner into literary collaborators.

At every point, however, the demands of the horror genre prevent the real story from developing. If the sun shines through an open window and the two seem to be making friends, this only means that we are getting a breather before the next bout of sadism and terror. The form works infallibly to stop you thinking about the issues it raises. What is Annie doing with that blow-torch? Is she really going to chop his foot off? 'Oh, for heavens' sake Paul, I'm a trained nurse.' Zonk] There is a seasonal message all right: be glad you are not spending Christmas locked up with a mad nurse.

'The Prisoner of Zenda': Greenwich (081-858 7755), to 6 Feb; extra matinee tomorrow, 3.30pm. 'Misery': Criterion (071-839 4488).

(Photograph omitted)