THEATRE / Blind men's bluff: Paul Taylor reviews Cheek by Jowl's double bill

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The Independent Culture
The celebrated Cheek by Jowl opens its London season at the Donmar Warehouse with a 20-minute curtain-raiser that involves three Flemish blind men, on the march (as they think) to Rome for a cure, who refuse to believe the news that they are in fact walking round and round in circles and end up sinking to their deaths in a bog. It's hard to extract anything much but a brisk dose of the obvious from Michel de Ghelderode's dour, droll playlet. Its central image is inspired by Breughel's famous painting The Parable of the Blind; its dramatic effect is like Beckett minus the genius.

The piece is not very tautly directed either, and it's a relief to pass on to the main business of the evening - Alfred de Musset's Don't Fool With Love, another play in which (metaphorically) the way is lost through wilful blindness. Here, Declan Donnellan, skilfully directing his own adaptation of this 1861 play, gives you the delectable double-sense that this must be a prodigiously tricky piece to pull off and that pulled off is precisely what it has been.

The focus is on a young couple - cousins, separated by their education - who are reunited by the man's father, the baron, in the hope that they will make an ideal marriage. They certainly seem made for each other, both of them brainy and sexy. But then the girl, Camille, announces her intention of becoming a nun.

Like Isabella's opting for the religious life in Measure for Measure, Camille's decision looks to be primarily motivated by a fear of love's instability and the wayward power of sex. Her plan to become a bride of Christ is both a desperate attempt to grab on to something absolute ('I want to love,' she says, 'but I don't want to suffer'), and also a semi-conscious stratagem to bind the young man, Perdican, to her the more by causing him to suffer. In the duologues that follow, they mercilessly flay each other's beliefs and poses. Our classy couple play games of pretended unconcern and tactical infidelity, while an innocent pawn - Camille's low-born milk-sister - is driven to her death.

It's a drama that begins almost like a comic opera with a chorus, a pair of gluttonous rival clerics and a risibly self-important baron, and then, though these elements recur, starts to lurch into something much more sour, tragic and intellectually challenging. Donnellan unites these disparate idioms with huge flair on a largely bare circular acting space, whose shape and the kind of motion it dictates create a sense that, however many rings they run round each other, the increasingly fraught couple will get nowhere. Paddy Cuneen's clever, almost continuous score is another shrewd binding element and seems (as it gradually moves into the romanticism of Chopinesque waltzes) to be mirroring the shift of sensibility in the play.

The staging is wonderfully light and fluid. By the simple adoption of a tricolour sash, key characters can turn themselves into chorus members, comically manhandling other principals into position, even massaging the appropriate expression on to their faces. Donnellan and designer Nick Ormerod create an unencumbered atmosphere in which the pantomimic and the piercing seem to have every right to tumble over each other. And at the centre of it all, two outstanding performances. Maria Miles allows just the right amount of hysteria to escape through Camille's placid facade, and Michael Sheen is quite thrilling as Perdican, his wide eager smile increasingly like a net straining with the weight of his doubts and disappointments.

Donmar Warehouse, London WC2 (071-867 1150).