Theatre / Bully Berkoff belittles his Bardic debut

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A SMASH hit in New York in 1988 and a cause celebre in Germany, Steven Berkoff's production of Coriolanus finally reaches Britain with the addition of Berkoff himself - making his Shakespearean debut - in the title role.

A sense of unreality hovers over this event. Berkoff's name has been associated with the play for so long, and he is such obvious casting for Shakespeare's human fighting-machine, that it feels we have seen the show already. You can easily imagine what it might be like; and then find your idea confirmed on the West Yorkshire Playhouse stage in Leeds.

The whole thing is accompanied and controlled by an off-stage percussionist. A black-clad chorus doubles as plebeians, Volscians and senators, alternately performing robotic routines and freezing for the principal speakers. The set, a black-and-white marble floor marked out with a central circle and compass points, is a means of placing the company as precisely as chess- men; and intensifying the impact of explosive energy contained by rigid discipline. So far so good. There is also some wonderfully visualised detail; such as a sewing scene for the two women where Berkoff absorbs domestic realism into his own austere stage poetry, even allowing Virglia (Sara Griffiths) to mime the death of the butterfly torn to pieces by her little boy. Conversely, the show has the stylistic self-confidence to bend the rules; as with David Henry's oily Menenius, who makes his entrance into this world of imaginary needles and two-handed swords lighting a real cigar.

What you look for in vain is any discriminating attitude towards the play. Fed into the crunchers of Berkoff's derisive sensibility, it emerges as a style-driven artefact in which every leading character - with the exception of Faith Brook's unaccountably gentle Volumnia - figures as a target. One moment they are creatures of menacing power; the next they collapse into slapstick grotesques. Either way, the production substitutes contemptuous belittlement for tragedy. Even Brecht, in his politically mutilated version of the play, allowed its enemies of the people a certain magnitude.

Nothing in Berkoff's version, alas, is more predictable than his own performance as a ranting little bully in gangster suit and boots. Never, even in the most elaborately mimed combat, does he look like a warlord, or a match for Colin McFarlane's Aufidius. Vocally, he repeatedly starts at the top, leaving himself no chance to build. Where he does score is in self-mockery. Arriving at Corioli he and the chorus put their shoulders against an invisible obstacle and strain their guts out, until Berkoff casually remarks, "the gates are open", and strolls into the city. But is he making fun of war or of his own stage techniques?

Launching the Brighton Festival at the start of an English tour, Silviu Purcarete's Romanian production of Phaedra (adapted from Euripides and Seneca) offers a genuine interchange of tragedy and comedy, and much else besides. Its leading characters occupy the mid-register in a universal scale between the rival god- desses who pace the stage throughout, and a continually mutating chorus - equipped with enormous walking sticks which take on a life of their own, craning their neck-like handles towards the centre-stage bed like voyeurs. From Aphrodite's whispered opening curse on Hippolytus, the action commands full tragic authority: something dreadful is happening to these people, something important to all of us is being said. The show arrives at Riverside next month; not to be missed.

Having killed his wife in a car crash, Harold has gone to ground in Wales, with his Mozart CDs, his job as a humorous columnist and his paralysed daughter. From the title of James Saunders' Retreat you know that his peace will be short-lived. Out of the night comes Hannah, daughter of his two best friends who have also met violent deaths. As an honorary uncle, Harold greets her with indulgent hospitality - which turns to panic and fury on discovering that she means to hold him to a promise to take full responsibility for her and her schizoid brother.

Although there are only two characters, the play resounds with clamorous voices from the past, as the facts behind the crash emerge, and as Harold comes to see the intruder both as a mortal threat and as the re-embodiment of the two people he loved most. The piece is quite marvellously played in Sam Walters' production by Victoria Hamilton and Tim Pigott-Smith, who appears as an old softie with a toothy smile for as long as he is in control, and turns brutally powerful once he emerges as defencelessly fragile.

Tim Fountain's Tchaikovsky in the Park covers 20 years in its hero's life in four leap-frogging acts, which enable the play to jump straight from his days as a newly- wed to his wife's insanity, and from his early concert-hall triumphs to the eve of his suicide. He explains his life as a process of losing himself either in music or with random partners under park bushes; and perhaps for that reason he fails to take shape as a character. Other characters - such as a steely Nadezda von Meck (Gina Cameron) and a Bradford mill-owner cartoon of Nikolai Rubinstein (Mark Healy) - come over with quite a bite. A product of Springboard Theatre, which supplies a bridge between drama-school graduates and the profession, the show is a persuasive advertisement for the company's talent as well as its good intentions.

Gordon Kaye gives a winningly laid-back performance as Elwood P Dowd, the courtly, rabbit-fixated hero of Mary Chase's 1944 comedy, Harvey. Otherwise Clifford Williams's revival leaves me mystified that a piece of such low energy, containing so many under- written parts and timid sub-plots left hanging in mid-air, can once have spread from an enraptured Broadway to attract fun-lovers from India to Japan. I suppose there are rabbits everywhere.

'Coriolanus': Leeds WYP, 0113-244 2111. 'Phaedra': Riverside, W6, 0181- 748 3354, from 21 Jun. 'Retreat': Richmond Orange Tree, 0181-940 3633. 'Tchaikovsky': Bride- well, EC4, 0171-936 3456. 'Harvey': Shaftesbury, W1, 0171-379 5399.