Riveted by a zinc bed and a hint of menace

My Zinc Bed | Royal Court, London; Conversations after a Burial | Almeida, London; Vincent River | Hampstead, London; An Die Musik | Tricycle, London
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The Independent Culture

This has been a week of some quivering excitement in theatrical circles with new plays by state-of-the-nation bigwig David Hare and by France's Yasmina Reza - she of the international hit, Art.

This has been a week of some quivering excitement in theatrical circles with new plays by state-of-the-nation bigwig David Hare and by France's Yasmina Reza - she of the international hit, Art.

Hare's quietly riveting My Zinc Bed - staged by the dramatist in the Royal Court's main house - is an intellectually bracing, sociologically analytical and emotionally charged three-hander about market forces and modern love, addictions and transience, constructive and destructive urges.

Victor, a successful businessman (Tom Wilkinson), takes a shine to struggling poet, Paul (Steven Mackintosh). While scoffing at the latter's needy devotion to Alcoholics Anonymous, Victor readily employs him to write promotional copy.

Then the boss's wife Elsa (Julia Ormond with a soft Nordic accent) turns up at the office. Formerly a drunk and junkie, she's supposedly cured herself with Victor's support. But she and Paul are irresistibly attracted and start gulping down hard spirits again.

Within the bounds of a chamber play, Hare characteristically still thinks big. Victor mulls on the demise of caring socialism. Connections are drawn between the rise in chemical dependency and cults.

More timeless grand themes include the fickleness of Fortune, as Victor's venture is wrecked by stock market whims.

Our protagonists' disagreements about the nature of addiction occasionally sound like a psychoanalysts' conference. At the other extreme, Paul has some purple patches when a reminiscing narrator.

But generally Hare's cast - backed by Vicki Mortimer's chic set of grey sliding panels - unite neo-Romantic passion and minimalist, honed exchanges with fine control.

There are also flickers of Strindbergian menace and of comic relief as one wonders if Wilkinson's friendly yet crushing Victor and Ormond's sweetly alluring Elsa are covert evil tempters, and as Mackintosh's Paul runs scared from life's pleasures.

Over at the Almeida in Islington, Reza's Conversations After A Burial proves a comparative disappointment. This is actually an early work dug out of the author's bottom drawer, and it's sub-Chekhovian fare. Reza's central characters are - à la Three Sisters - a trio of siblings. Daddy has died and Nathan, Alex and Edith are stuck together in a backwater with guests. They bitterly yearn for true lovers, wildly have affairs and philosophise. Surely there's also a hint of The Cherry Orchard about this family estate no longer lovingly tended. Director Howard Davies's staging invites you to make the Chekhov connection as David Calder, playing Uncle Pierre, ambles in a panama hat amongst autumnal creepers and white garden furniture.

Unfortunately, the moodily bereaved and elegiac atmosphere - with no obvious class tensions between Reza's modern sophisticates - often feels artificial and precious.

Paul Higgins's paranoid aggression, as Alex, seems tiresome. Meanwhile Clare Holman is peculiarly wooden as Elisa, Alex's ex who craves Matthew Marsh's Nathan. Claire Bloom likewise seems stiff as Pierre's wife. Granted, both these women are meant to be feeling awkward but one also senses actresses still struggling to get under their characters' skin.

Amanda Root, by contrast, superbly underpins Edith's brisk pragmatism with deep grief, and Calder is terrifically warm, a droll personification of patience.

Still, Reza's dialogue (translated by Christopher Hampton) hardly trips off the tongue, her point about fervent love versus death might have been made more subtly with-out grave-top sex and a last-minute flurry of ghostly hallucinations. Reza's mature works have proved more adept in their handling of aggro, comedy and experimentalism.

Next, at Hampstead Theatre in Vincent River, we find a mother mourning her son. This is the latest offering from Philip Ridley, who's previously won awards for Fastest Clock In The Universe and the film, The Krays.

Here, as rather too often before, Ridley transports us to a nastily brutal but poetically styled Hackney hell featuring menace, violence and nightmarish weirdness.

The bereaved Anita (Julie Legrand) is being followed by a strange boy. She opens her door and Davey (William Mannering with a cockney accent) initially hovers nervously on the threshold in his ragged black suit.

He says he's the passer-by who found the battered corpse of Anita's beloved Vince in a derelict toilet at Shoreditch Rise and that he's dogged by the memory.

The pair strike a deal to talk, however painfully. This leads to revelations about their impure histories, about bullying they've suffered, and their confused feelings regarding Vince who, crucially, never told his mother he was homosexual.

Ridley can be a skilful, vivid storyteller and his geographic detailing - leading us along specific London streets - certainly brings the play's bleak world of gay-bashing and bigotry close to home.

However, the way Ridley generates suspense - making his characters switch between wariness, predatory moves and tender gestures - is mechanical. The "mysterious intruder" scenario is pseudo-early Pinter. The psychotic game Davey plays, substituting Anita for Vince, is frankly unconvincing. And most problematically, the graphic account of Vince's final hour - moving from erotic fulfilment to a horrible bloody death - may aim to be tragic and shocking but looks like a cheap "thrilling" climax.

Matthew Lloyd's production is commendable. Legrand manages to be hard-nosed and shaken, Mannering is animated; Liz Ashcroft's set, with its peeling pale wallpaper and dust sheets, is subtly spooky.

At the Tricycle Theatre, there's another depiction of inhuman brutality as the veteran avant-garde writer-director Pip Simmons has teamed up with Romanian actors to revive An Die Musik, his mid-Seventies piece about the Holocaust.

Simmons's original production is remembered by many as as stunningly provocative. Lamentably though, this work hasn't weathered well. An SS officer acts as a compere of a musical "entertainment" performed by Jews in a concentration camp. He grins at us as if we're Nazi sympathisers. We watch an operetta entitled Anne Frank's Dream then the cast alternate gruelling prison-yard exercises with chorusing, say, Beethoven's Ode To Joy.

Their sweating exhaustion has undeniable immediacy but the sections of mimed terror, with much exaggerated face-pulling, just look crude. Simmons clearly recognises the shortcomings of art regarding the Holocaust. So why does he serve up numbingly clumsy acting with a declared purpose of re-alerting us to the horrors of fascism?

'My Zinc Bed': Royal Court, SW1 (020 7565 5000) to 28 October; 'Conversations after a Burial': Almeida, N1 (020 7359 4404), to 21 Oct and touring; 'Vincent River': Hampstead Theatre, NW3 (020 7722 9301) to 7 Oct; 'An Die Musik': Tricycle, NW6 (020 7328 1000) to 7 Oct

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