THEATRE / Arctic roles: Nick Kimberley on a beguiling new work, Beulah Land at the ICA

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The potential energy of theatre on the page requires performance to make it kinetic: there is always something beyond what text supplies, or else why perform it at all? Authors - even dead ones like Samuel Beckett - attempt to control performance, but the trick for a director is to release the text from the page. The director Lucy Bailey worked with Beckett early in her career and has also directed opera, a dramatic medium in which music fractures narrative linearity. Something similar occurs in Bailey's latest production, Beulah Land.

The programme credit reads 'A new piece of music theatre by Lucy Bailey, Jeremy Herbert, Claire MacDonald, Jeremy Peyton Jones', but it is made clear who did what: Bailey, director; Herbert, designer; MacDonald, writer; Peyton Jones, composer. In some ways, the results are not unconventional. Herbert's designs include a false proscenium, and, perhaps unusually for such a work, there is plenty of text, too much to absorb - but better to leave the theatre wondering how it all fits, than knowing exactly who, what and why.

At the heart of Beulah Land are two girls, Eva (Hayley Carmichael) and Vera (Sarah Chalmers-Cameron). Their names may make them emblems - Eva, the first woman; Vera, the true woman - but they have flesh and above all they have imagination. There is a third female: Vera as an old woman (Margery Withers) remembering her childhood. The set is a bedroom, but the bed stretches the width of the stage. And there is a man who enters and exits as if sleepwalking. He is the sailor (John Ramm), figment of the girls' imagination. Their reveries transform the bedroom into Arctic wasteland across which they journey to rescue a frozen sailor. Or are they in his imagination? For on tape we hear the journal of an Arctic explorer whose icy delirium begets a fantasy of two girls playing in a bedroom.

Memories, fantasies, delirium are yoked together by images - snow, stormy sea, spring flowers, faces - glimpsed through the bedroom window. And arching over everything is Peyton Jones's music, performed on tape and live by two violinists (Meg Gates, Anne Stephenson). The music adds atmosphere - folkish keening from the violins; electronic hums, rumbles, creaks; most poignantly, the mournful chanting of Inuit women - but is more a moody interlude than a structural element in the drama.

That is the only weakness in a work that is beguiling and enigmatic. There are moments of electrifying transformation, not simply for effect but to make visible a world beyond the text. Even while we're disoriented, Beulah Land pulls us into the orbit of its imagination.

Last performance tonight, 8pm, at the ICA, London SW1 (071-930 0493)

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