Rabbits, peasants and plague - hardly an average puppet show

<i>Light</i> | Almeida, London <i>A Doll's House </i>| New Ambassadors, London <i>He Stumbled </i>| Riverside Studios, London
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The Independent Culture

We should count our blessings. Three of Britain's most exhilaratingly inventive, boldly physical and intelligent troupes - Complicite, Shared Experience and The Wrestling School - have rolled up in London this week with new productions.

We should count our blessings. Three of Britain's most exhilaratingly inventive, boldly physical and intelligent troupes - Complicite, Shared Experience and The Wrestling School - have rolled up in London this week with new productions.

Everybody who has not seen Complicite's work hitherto should probably stake out the Almeida in Islington and mercilessly frisk anyone who looks as if they're hoarding a ticket for Light. Adapted from Torgney Lindgren's 1980s novel, this is a simple yet far-reaching folk tale about love and death, ethics and anarchy, hopes of redemption and, er, rabbits.

A storyteller (Dermot Kerrigan in a faintly sleazy white suit) oversees all this, holding a huge bunny in his arms and breaking into toothy grins like some shifty stand-up-cum-callous god. Via his prologue and a fleeting bout of puppetry, we slip into a full-scale tragicomic saga about a mountain community of medieval Swedes who are blighted by a plague, then fall into bestially amoral ways.

Whilst the village of Kadis is peopled by traditional peasants, Lindgren's yarn is clearly of contemporary relevance. The "Great Sickness" is resonant of AIDS; a frenzied culling of the rabbits has overtones of a racial massacre; and modern concerns about the loss of moral certainties chime with the preoccupations of Konik the carpenter (Tim McMullan).

This is a bewitching production aesthetically, the rough planks of Dick Bird's set sweeping up to a vertiginous peak against scudding clouds. The cast have fantastic faces - like root vegetables, skeletal birds and sprites. And the ragged, cadaverous mannequins which they occasionally manipulate are grotesque and touchingly frail. By way of blackly comic relief, there's some deft and wildly silly clowning, including the hammering of rigid corpses, head first, into the ground.

In the final analysis though, aficionados who have long-charted Complicite's progress may not be so electrified. Matthew Broughton and director Simon McBurney's joint adaptation lets Konik bang on about good and bad. More crucially, McBurney seems to be retreading old ground here. The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol was a more searing, creatively inspired peasant play while Mnemonic, the company's last piece, made more startling use of multimedia technology. One can't help wondering if McBurney - who has been directing French and Saunders' new tour amongst other projects - hasn't spread his albeit remarkable talents too thinly.

At the New Ambassadors, the scene shifts to Norway as the expressionist company Shared Experience takes on A Doll's House (translated by Michael Meyer). Strikingly, Ibsen's 19th century heroine Nora (Anne-Marie Duff) ends up - like the citizens of Kadis - rejecting established mores as she walks away from her marriage where love is dead. Only here, her shocked husband, Torvald (Paterson Joseph) is an oppressive bourgeois patriarch so Nora's "scandalous" behaviour is portrayed as a fundamentally admirable act of proto-feminist independence.

Ironically, director Polly Teale found herself being pulled away from this production by domestic matters, having to quit rehearsals to give birth. The show has suffered as a consequence, even though Yvonne McDevitt (formerly assistant director on The Weir) valiantly helped hold the fort. Angela Davies' set is exquisite, though: an all-white, subtly soiled and crumbling Victorian interior, complete with a matching claustrophobic doll's house.

What's usually brilliant about Shared Experience is their technique of revealing repressed inner lives by having characters' physically haunted on stage by other selves or their secret thoughts. But here that approach is half-baked. The desperate and menacing renegade Krogstad (Jude Akuwudike) - from whom Nora has illicitly borrowed money - mentally and physically dogs her, crawling round her parlour groaning. This is potentially suggestive as he might represent her fearful visions of either his future as a destitute or of her own morally "blackened" spirit (if that's the point being made by the ahistorical, racially mixed casting).

But such readings never really come into focus. The companies' physical work is peculiarly clumsy as well, with Duff's dancing of the alluring tarantella being a lumpen stomp. Thankfully, the production does get into its stride. Joseph's Torvald becomes animatedly funny, when smothering lustful urges and greeting unwelcome guests with strained smiles. Duff, in turn, mixes babyish and seductive tricks with an increasingly dignified, determined maturity. The couple's terminal argument is worth the wait.

Finally, at the Riverside Studios, one can tussle with Howard Barker's latest, extraordinary work, presented by The Wrestling School. Somewhere between a medieval fable and modern thriller, He Stumbled follows the fall of a master anatomist. Doja (William Chubb) is a coldly detached professional who's lured into a fatal, feverish affair with a bereaved queen.

Barker can get on your nerves. His characters' self-consciously visceral dramatics teeter on the risible when, say, Victoria Wicks's queen (inexplicably called Turner) keeps howling, "Flayed! Flayed!". The author's grand aperçus about will, destiny and what-have-you are often obscurely abstracted - a manifestly brainy playwright making himself perversely unintelligible.

Yet, at the heart of this piece lies a tortured portrait of obsessive love, lost control and panic. Barker's poetic dialogue has the lavish eloquence of a Jacobean tragedy. Tomas Leipzig and Billie Kaiser's set and costumes are impressively stylish, featuring much clinical steel and chic tailoring, whilst Barker's cast turn in ferocious as well as startlingly funny, precision-tooled perfomances.

'Light': Almeida, N1 (020 7359 4404) to 18 Nov; 'A Doll's House': New Ambassadors, WC2 (020 7369 1761) to 9 Dec; 'He Stumbled': Riverside Studios, W6 (020 8237 1111) to Sat

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