Is this a rabbit I see before me?

<i>Light</i> | Theatre de Complicite
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The Independent Culture

In the world of theatrical illusion, rabbits tend to stick to their standard trick of multiplying like, well, rabbits. Show me a top hat, and I'll show you a surprise bunny. That rule is subjected to a blackly comic reductio ad absurdum, then put into reverse, and then redemptively resumed in Light, the agonisingly mordant and moving new show by Complicite, which has been adapted by Simon McBurney and Matthew Broughton from the novel of the same name by the Swedish author Torgny Lindgren.

In the world of theatrical illusion, rabbits tend to stick to their standard trick of multiplying like, well, rabbits. Show me a top hat, and I'll show you a surprise bunny. That rule is subjected to a blackly comic reductio ad absurdum, then put into reverse, and then redemptively resumed in Light, the agonisingly mordant and moving new show by Complicite, which has been adapted by Simon McBurney and Matthew Broughton from the novel of the same name by the Swedish author Torgny Lindgren.

The piece begins with a cream-suited Irish stand-up-comic-style narrator smirking insincerely into his microphone, with a great rabbit (real? fake? dead? alive?) in his arms. Later, there's a sequence in which the company, manipulating puppet-sized versions of themselves, race round the wooden wave of a stage, dementedly massacring bunnies, whose furry corpses are tossed aloft against the sky. Why do they have it in for our long-eared friends?

Set in a 14th-century Swedish village, Light tells the story of a man who goes on a journey in search of love and ironically brings death back to his community in the shape of a plague-ridden rabbit. As life in the village is grotesquely whittled down to just seven souls, and people are reduced to incest, bestiality, murder and worse, the situation affords Complicite an opportunity not just to show off their powers of gestural and expressionist performance, but to initiate a darkly farcical meditation on the nature of right and wrong, and the difference between man and beast.

About 12 months ago, McBurney and company upset all the critics' careful calculations about the best play and theatrical event of 1999, with Mnemonic, a dazzling multimedia show that focused on the ice-preserved body of a neolithic hunter found in the Italian Alps and reflected on the immensity of the past and man's moral responsibility to it.

Light may not, in my opinion, be quite as searching as that piece, but it is heartening to see Complicite going back to its roots and relying less on technological wizardry. Here, once again, searing effects are achieved with an elemental simplicity, as when whole planks seem to be planed up from the stage to form the coffin lids on the multiplying corpses, or when a grief-stricken mother (the matchless Lilo Baur) smears her face with a thick white gunk to emphasise the encrusted salt left by her weeping.

Light dramatises a situation that Kafka would have appreciated - of a society in which the one man who longs for the clarity of justice is considered a criminal. But unlike Kafka, this show understands that there's a perspective from which that seemingly perverse verdict can be seen as riddlingly just, or not unjust.

At first, I found the device of the modern Irish stand-up compÿre irritating. Focusing all our qualms about cultural tourism on this figure seemed simply too neat a way of absolving Complicite of that charge. But when, eerily, the character metamorphosed into the census-taking visitor and judge, also horribly external to the villagers' predicament, the trick paid off in spades. Unmissable.

To 18 Nov (020-7359 4404).

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