THEATRE / Bright Lenz: Paul Taylor on Jakob Lenz's The New Menoza at The Gate, London

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The New Menoza (1776) is rather like what you'd get if you were to cross Rasselas with Acorn Antiques. Sending up rotten the theatrical conventions of its period, the play also parades an oriental prince who, deposited in small-town Saxony, is well equipped to offer an alien's detached, derisive perspective on European civilisation. Goldsmith's epistolary Citizen of the World provides a rough, contemporary English parallel.

The play's author, Jakob Lenz (1751-92), is unlikely to become a name on every theatre-goer's lips over here, but a mini-season of his works at last year's Edinburgh Festival made a most persuasive case for The Soldiers, a restless, scathingly unsentimental account of the destructive impact on a town's female population of the military types temporarily stationed there.

The New Menoza was performed at the Festival in a rehearsed reading by London's Gate Theatre under the direction of David Fielding, who now offers a complete staging of the play at the theatre's home address. The very restrictions of the rehearsed- reading format (the fact, say, that the cast had, absurdly, to recite the melodramatic stage directions) gave a droll spin to the play's tongue-in-cheek self- reflexivity. Watching Fielding's beautifully designed and acted full-scale version you may find yourself, by contrast, less forgiving of the play's rambling sprawl, or the fact that often (for a present-day audience, at least) the ironic inverted commas are still glaringly visible, but the same cannot be said for what was supposed to be between them.

The satire on academic dispute, for example, remains resolutely opaque and, even where Prince Tandi (a turbanned Peter Lindford) is concerned, parodic compilation of plot - lovers who turn out to be siblings, who turn out not to be - seems to take priority over thematic advance, never throwing into sufficient relief the contrast between Qumban and European moral codes.

Luckily, the codding around with conventions is often hilarious. Deborah Findlay's transcendentally funny turn as the Count's spurned wife is well worth the price of a ticket alone. A pain from Spain who is all bosom-heaving vengefulness, she has a mind that can lunge derangedly from one self-fixated track to another in a split second. 'Better to have murdered my father than be the daughter of an old retired army officer, the tenant of my husband . . .' she spits out, typically, with her envenomed Hispanic snarl, during one of the multiple mix-ups over parentage. As Zops, the man whose fate it is to bring people news that invariably causes them to keel over, Tom Chadbon is hilariously self- concerned, lamenting this occupational hazard at length and wasting no sensitivity on those slumped about him.

The introduction to Meredith Oakes's spirited translation talks of 'a variety of sub- plots (that) burst like coloured streamers', but there are times when it would be fairer to say that they bounce in like lead balloons. The limp, straggling epilogue would be a case in point - a postscript dispute in which a philistine father and his bored, uppish student-son have a row over types of theatrical entertainment. 'I'll give you your three unities,' roars the father, belabouring his offspring with a brolly. By this stage, though, Lenz's chaotic play has made the unities seem a vastly underrated mode of organisation.

Continues to 7 March at the Gate, Notting Hill, London W11 (071-229 0706).

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