THEATRE / Barker's up for assault again: The Europeans - Greenwich; Blood Wedding - Lyric Hammersmith; Don't Fool With Love - Queen's Hall Arts Centre

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The Independent Culture
TOWARDS the end of Howard Barker's The Europeans, a play set in Vienna after the siege of 1683, the Habsburg General Starhemberg gives one of his officers a message to deliver behind the Turkish lines. The officer hesitates; he has four children. Don't plead for them, Starhemberg (Nicholas le Prevost) tells him; plead for yourself, 'Make me adore you,' and adopts the pose of a trusting child while the other embarks on an embarrassed rigmarole that finally trails away with the acknowledgement that it is time he went off to see the Turks.

It is an excellent scene, exploring a moral dilemma through clearly plotted narrative, heightened by improvisation and role reversal, that advances the story and reconfirms Starhemberg's authority in a way that is at once unpredictable and psychologically realistic. But I can imagine the snort of derision that sentence would earn from Barker, an author who has publicly declared war on clarity and realism. Equally, I guess he would spurn any remarks on the prescience of this play (rejected by the RSC in 1984) as a forecast of the renewed Christian-Muslim carnage in the Balkans.

Every day brings accounts of worse atrocities than anything Barker could devise; but, as usual, The Europeans approaches history only as a source of exhibits in a personal black museum. Enter the Habsburg empress (Jennie Stoller), remarking, '500 disembowelled women are lying in the Wienerwald' as if she had just spotted an unwashed fork on the dining table. They are eating dogs in Vienna, but the emperor (Bill Stewart in a gypsy-baron wig) is posing for a court painter, the general turns mob orator, and the clergy are seething with lust. Morality will return, somebody says, when the shops open. That's one way of looking at it. But the moral vacuum in Kenny Ireland's production is no social mise-en-scene. It is there to allow Barker to reverse good and bad, to swoop from strenuous poeticising to cloacal abuse, from horrors to giggles. Yes; the show does induce the intended state of vertigo; but with no more reference to life outside the theatre than a trip on the Big Dipper.

This is just as well in view of the main lines of action. One shows a girl (Judith Scott) who has been raped and mutilated by the Turks, insisting on giving birth in the street, and finally handing her child back to Islam. In the other, a frenziedly ambitious priest (Philip Franks) develops into an eloquent bishop after discarding a troublesome parent. 'All this happiness,' complains the empress, 'and you have to bash your mother with a plank]'

Actors love Howard Barker and the company are evidently having a whale of a time with this one. It is not simply that the play gives them the opportunity to explore extreme emotions. The real intoxication is that each one sees himself as the centre of the world. There may be small characters in Chekhov: there are none in Barker. His plays are supposed to assault and disorient the spectator; but they do not include their audience in the circle of individual omnipotence, and you are left feeling grateful that their arrogant equation of beauty and cruelty is confined to the stage.

What rescues Blood Wedding from the same reflection is that, unlike Barker's synthetic world, Lorca's characters are as much a part of the landscape as the vineyards and wheatfields on which their lives depend; and that their verbal poetry forms an unbroken continuum with their surroundings. Nigel Jamieson's new text for his Odyssey Theatre production is at its most expressive in hard, peasant detail which underscores the erotic blood feud no less than the fertility imagery of the desert and the galloping horse. Death is inscribed in Helen Turner's scenic transitions; and when the action moves to the forest, the tree trunks are represented by waterfalls of illuminated sand, like so many hourglasses. Frances Tomelty, replacing Zofia Kalinska at the last minute, is among the best of an indifferent company among whom only Patrick O'Kane as a scowling Leonato relates to the flared-nostril flamenco routines with which Mr Jamieson has recklessly framed the text. What comes over is a consciously exotic spectacle rather than a tragedy of common life.

Coupled with a Ghelderode curtain-raiser, Cheek by Jowl's touring production of Musset's Don't Fool With Love marks another triumphant raid on the Continental Romantic repertory. Directing his own translation, Declan Donnellan makes a perfect adjustment to the double-focus of this 1834 tragicomedy of pride and betrayal: setting the piercing experiences of the young against the dulled sensuality of their elders, so that the two generations seem to be living in different countries.

The Baron stage-manages a long-prepared union between his son and his niece (Michael Sheen and Maria Miles) who, obediently poised like exquisite dolls, proceed to thwart this plan, wreck each others' lives, and drive a peasant girl to suicide. Their fatal pattern is comically echoed in the story of two rival priests (David Foxxe and Brian Pettifer), recapitulating the romantic theme in terms of gluttony: while the Baron (Colin McFarlane) hovers over the darkening scene, testily observing that it will spoil the whole season for him. It is a highly musical work, with brillant instrumental support by Paddy Cunneen. This is where Anouilh originated, and it is better than anything he wrote.

Several readers have written to point out that in calling Crazy For You an idiot's night out, I fully confirmed this description by getting the plot wrong. My craven apologies to the Prince Edward team.

'The Europeans', Greenwich (081-858 7755); 'Blood Wedding', Lyric Hammersmith (081-741 2311); 'Don't Fool With Love', Queen's Hall Arts Centre, Hexham (0434 607272).