THEATRE / Acts of defiance: Lift: Sarah Hemming on The Little Phoenix, from China, A Guerra Santa, from Brazil and The Desire Paths

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The Independent Culture
HY HOLD the London International Festival of Theatre at all? Why fill theatres throughout London with productions that only the most polyglot of audiences will understand? There are several reasons.

Lift has often brought fascinating productions of texts we may already know - the Romanian Midsummer Night's Dream last year was a prime example - that open up new ways of looking at them. Second, and this is more the case this year, the festival brings unfamiliar theatre texts that have to communicate through the language barrier. This often makes for spectacular productions, drawing on visual techniques and traditional styles. For success these shows rely heavily on the actors' ability and this is surely one of the most valuable things about Lift - it sharpens the relationship between performer and audience, and reminds you that, at heart, good theatre is performers on stage getting their story across.

The Beijing Jing Ju Opera Troupe is a superb example of this. The Little Phoenix (Queen Elizabeth Hall), from China, is an ancient tale of a woman warrior. When the play opens the Sung army is in trouble: its enemies have kidnapped the daughters of Madame She, a grand old lady of the Sung dynasty, and the army has no decent generals left to mastermind their release. But Madame She discovers that she is harbouring a secret weapon in her household - her maid, Yang Paifeng, who reveals herself to be a whizz at armed combat. She is placed at the head of the army - an intriguing scenario this, rather like sticking William and Harry's nanny in charge of the armed forces - and goes on to nix the foe.

We're provided with a synopsis, but from then on it's entirely up to the company and Wang Jing, as the militant maid, to take us through the story. This they do with dazzling skill. It's impossible to fault them technically - every fight is different: a combination of dance, martial arts, acrobatics and tumbling that produces a whirring blurr of coloured silk. It's Wang Jing, though, who really holds the stage with a combination of physical dexterity and wit. She plays Yang Paifeng as a charming minx, who delights in deflating male egos. Taking on one bearded ferocity, she lets him have the upper hand for a while before reducing him to a limp heap on the floor, then gently offers him a hand to help him to his feet. It's a joy to watch a performer so completely in control of her skills and so at ease: when she's finally done battle with the entire opposing army, she looks as composed as if she had just finished a spot of flower arranging.

Though equally beguiling visually, A Guerra Santa from Brazil (Riverside Studios) is entirely different in mood and far more opaque. Where the Chinese company favours clarity, precision and detailed use of movement, the Brazilians move more stealthily, piling bizarre scene upon bizarre scene in a show whose meaning emerges through a cumulative rather than a narrative process.

The play, the programme tells us, is based on Dante's Divine Comedy, but the production, directed by Gabriel Villela, takes us on a journey through a hell that more closely resembles modern Brazil, where violence, poetry, religion, music and political upheaval are jumbled together.

It's a dark, lurid production that looks marvellous. The set, all ochre, red and dusty pink, is festooned with posies and bathed in misty light. The style is drawn partly from circus theatre and the characters strut melodramatically, strike attitudes and revel in excess. Though the precise meaning of some of the scenes is lost, there are some striking tableaux - such as the garish parody of the Last Supper led by a black transvestite - and the comic, yet slightly nightmarish mood of the piece is very powerful. As the cast file off in a motley, misshapen procession they could be out of some medieval masque or straight off the streets of contemporary Rio.

We're back in a modern hell in Graeme Miller's The Desire Paths (Royal Court) - at least we seem to be. Ironically, this show, the only one performed in English in Lift's first week, was the most obscure and the least generous and communicative.

A group of characters find themselves beamed up to a derelict room on some mysterious mission. This looks promising; perhaps we are in for some sort of Famous Five adventure. But they are unable to open the door. Trapped, they are forced to make their journeys in their heads, recreating the urban landscape by speaking the names of the streets. This is interesting for a while, but gradually becomes more and more repetitive and increasingly obtuse. The lighting is too low to see anything, the soundtrack too loud and the characters too tedious - the effect self-indulgent.

Finally, a show that isn't part of Lift, but could be in spirit. The Palace Theatre, Watford, has won a 'BE BOLD' Arts Council grant for Salsa Celestina, and rightly so, for the show is nothing if not bold. Like The Pan Beaters at Greenwich Theatre, this production, by Lou Stein, takes an ancient tale and marries it with a definitive musical style - this time instead of pan music, it's salsa on stage.

Fernando de Rojas' 15th-century Spanish play about the star-crossed lovers helped out by La Celestina, an ageing and devious brothel owner, is told here in short scenes woven together with salsa. It is a wonderful idea, and the music and dancing are excellent, combining with John Keane's vivid set painting to create an exuberant mood. The drawback is that the text isn't up to the idea, proceeding rather sketchily through the plot and leaving actors with wooden lines to deliver, while the import of Celestina's character and situation is scarcely touched on. The cast, however, led by Dollie Henry as Celestina, give their all.

Lift runs to 12 July. Box office: 071 413 1459; info: 071-379 8009. 'Salsa Celestina' runs to 3 July (0923-225671)

(Photograph omitted)