THEATRE / Arms and the government's men

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ALLISON PEARSON has rightly complained that if anyone on these pages was to have a crack at the Scott Inquiry it should have been her. Of course, the proceedings should have been televised. But as they were not, the theatre has seized its chance and come through with something much more than a second-best.

Half the Picture: the Scott 'Arms to Iraq' Inquiry is a verbatim compilation by Richard Norton Taylor with added scenes by John McGrath. A two-and-a-half hour digest of 400 hours of evidence is not going to supply anyone with a map to this labyrinth. But by the same token it saves you from becoming benumbed by detail. However closely you have followed the reports, the act of framing the event on a stage, with actors recreating the speech habits and body-language of our leaders, puts it under a piercing light and renews the original sense of shock. Given the anti-democratic subtext of the government witnesses, it also reasserts the theatre's role as a supreme invention of democracy.

So what picture emerges of the administration that secretly countenanced arms sales to Iraq and then allowed the blame to fall on the arms supplier? A picture of guilty creatures scurrying for cover? I'm joking of course. No. Almost to a man, they come over as courteous and amiable, anxious to give what help they can, and sublimely unaware that they are talking drivel. Normally, you take an actor's ability to memorise lines for granted; but I am overcome with admiration for the achievement of Nicolas Kent's company in committing this verbiage to memory. Speeches that seem to be heading in a clear direction perform a stupefying volte face at the last moment, grind to a halt on a point of unargued dogma, or expire in the semantic stratosphere.

'Guidelines are not law, but are there to be followed, for what they are - guidelines.' Got that? Justice, we learn from the country's chief law officer, is 'an important consideration' - leaving you to work out the other considerations that outweigh it.

Arriving at the question of Public Interest Immunity Certificates, the Treasury solicitor, Andrew Leithead, defends his rewriting of a Matrix-Churchill witness's evidence by saying that 'any disclosure of documents in this class is contrary to public interest'. At least you know what he's saying. His opinion seems to be backed up by the Foreign Office in Tristan Garel-Jones's statement that any such disclosure would inflict 'unquantifiable' damage. Then, under questioning, the minister frankly acknowledges that he meant unquantifiably small as well as unquantifiably large.

Faced with that kind of reasoning, Michael Stroud (Scott) responds as if he had wandered into Looking-Glass country, while Jan Chappell (Presiley Baxendale) addresses witnesses with an incredulous smile, like Alice conversing with the caterpillar. She resorts to homespun banalities - 'The test is not what you say, but what you do' - in an attempt to drag the nonsense logic back into the real world. It does no good. Nothing makes any impression on these bland spokesmen of an impenetrable executive, epitomised in Sylvia Syms's overpoweringly uncommunicative Baroness Thatcher.

McGrath's interpolated monologues for Kurdish and Palestinian victims, and a Matrix-Churchill worker who tried to spill the beans fall into the trap of glib, push-button indignation. But they are structurally vital, in conveying some idea of what lies behind the veil of political double-speak.

Syms's Thatcher would meet her match in Pam Ferris as the unsinkable heroine of Sue Townsend's The Queen and I; though I doubt whether that is what either Townsend or her director, Max Stafford-Clark, had in mind in banishing the Royal Family to a Leicester housing estate. What they are aiming at, however, is far from clear.

On tour since March, the show reaches the Royal Court in tandem with a revival of Jim Cartwright's Road: two studies of urban dereliction, played on the same cramped set (by Fotini Dimou), one from the viewpoint of the residents who have never known anything else, the other through the appalled gaze of the dispossessed newcomers. Theoretically that makes sense, and it is fun to watch Toby Salaman as the scavenging narrator of Road reappearing as Townsend's goofily beaming Prince Charles. But the stylistic gulf between Cartwright's apocalyptic gutter poetry and Townsend's warm-hearted satire is too wide for any mutual illumination to take place.

What, then, is being satirised? There was no mistaking the target in Townsend's original novel, which could have carried Lear's motto, 'Take physic, pomp, expose thyself to feel what wretches feel'. It is a rite of passage through the complicated miseries of poverty; and it depends on a pile-up of everyday details - incomprehensible DSS forms, unavailable health care, interminable queuing - that has mostly vanished on stage.

Perhaps this was unavoidable. Performance demands a different kind of plotting, and Townsend, with her fertile comic imagination, has supplied it, reshaping the story to keep up with the real-life Windsors. The result is often killingly funny. But take one of the best scenes, where the Queen extracts a cash payment from a surly official by getting Harris the corgi (a glove puppet) to feign death. What you see is a confident woman putting one over on a class inferior. You do not experience the panic and impotence of someone at the bottom of the system. Nor is there any sign that the Republican government, which swept the Royals into Hell Close, is doing anything to change the status quo. So when the Queen finally emerges from an assertiveness course to address a local-radio audience in her own heartening words, what began as a criticism of privilege turns into a piece of monarchist flag-waving.

There is no escape from modern England in Declan Donnellan's Cheek by Jowl production of Measure for Measure. And when the courteous Angelo (Adam Kotz) entertains the desperate Isabella (Anastasia Hille) to tea, or the returning Duke (Stephen Boxer) showers his corrupt deputy with diplomatic bouquets, you sense the line humming between Shakespeare's Vienna and the Scott Inquiry office.

The show's animating principle is one of simultaneous action in which off-stage characters, like the condemned Claudio, continue their lives in view of the audience. If this has the advantage of attaching verbal decisions to visible consequences, it also robs the play of its indispensible contrast of locations. From thuggish cops to a jazz-singing Mariana, there is also some weird characterisation going on. Mark Bazeley's Lucio demonstrates his love for Claudio by repeatedly collapsing in tears. The Duke shows his power by physically rearranging the cast like shop-window manikins. The liberated Claudio (Danny Sapani) spurns Isabella who, in turn, responds to the Duke's proposal as if about to vomit. This play certainly contains puzzles that remain to be solved, but the solutions offered here strike me as perverse.

Tennessee Williams's Sweet Bird of Youth had a rough critical reception on Broadway in 1959, after which the sweet word of mouth kept it running for a year. Of all Williams's plays, this fable of a small-town gigolo and his faded movie-queen employer lends itself to defamation by plot synopsis. Breakfast vodka, goofballs, blackmail, venereal disease, it's all there, down to a last-act reception committee lining up to castrate the homecoming hero. Equally present are Williams's irrepressible comedy, structural wizardry, and - in Chance Wayne and Alexandra del Lago - two of the most demanding roles he ever created.

Richard Eyre's production amounts to a fearless vote of confidence in this open- hearted work. There are some textural changes, particularly for of the under-written role of Chance's home-town girlfriend, which improve on the published version. The atmosphere of Southern menace, poisonously projected by Richard Pascoe as the local demagogue, is firmly anchored in small-town realism. In short, all the conditions support the superb gladiatorial encounter of Clare Higgins and Robert Knepper in the central partnership: two apparent monsters who succeed in unmasking each other as members of the human race.

(Photograph omitted)