Sexual jealousy, sharp suits and a cryptic Irish classic

Navy Pier | Soho Theatre, London; The White Devil | Lyric Hammersmith, London; Parallel Lines | Barbican Pit, London
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

When hip young novelist Kurt Mitchell says of his overnight success, "it feels almost as if it's happening to someone else", he's expressing more than the usual dizziness of instant fame. The "someone else", who feels it should be happening to him, broils in bitterness across the USA. Navy Pier - opening the second season at the new Soho Theatre - is about plagiarism and the consequences when one of two creative writing students wins a short story prize and flees to New York with the other's girlfriend in tow.

When hip young novelist Kurt Mitchell says of his overnight success, "it feels almost as if it's happening to someone else", he's expressing more than the usual dizziness of instant fame. The "someone else", who feels it should be happening to him, broils in bitterness across the USA. Navy Pier - opening the second season at the new Soho Theatre - is about plagiarism and the consequences when one of two creative writing students wins a short story prize and flees to New York with the other's girlfriend in tow.

John Corwin's play is not theatrically adventurous. In Abigail Morris's production, four attractive young actors sit in four armchairs and tell their intercut stories - different perspectives on the same events - to the audience. It's as if they are testifying in court, or - this is America - in therapy. Early on, we're in male fantasy territory: female characters Iris and Liv talk only of how they revere their men. In fact, sexual jealousy is a vital thread in the tapestry Navy Pier slyly weaves, which reveals how two identities blur when one man's creativity is hijacked by another. Oliver Milburn's smooth but shallow Kurt writes only what he thinks Martin might write; Joseph May's likeable, introvert Martin now assumes Kurt's persona to seduce women.

It's a fascinating argument, that one impetuous act of treachery - a twist-in-the-tail that will surprise no one - might have such far-reaching psychological fallout. Wry details, and captivating performances from Doraly Rosen and Paloma Baeza in the supporting roles, contribute to Corwin's engaging play and the oddly precipitate ending only slightly detracts from it.

One can see why Philip Franks located his revival of Webster's The White Devil in Sixties' Italy: sharp suits and decadence, women throwing off the yoke of patriarchy and the Catholic church. But, like so many classic revivals that depend on relocation to make their point, it all seems tokenistic. Franks maybe should have tried to find the pitch, somewhere between self-irony and self-importance, at which Jacobean tragedy can flourish.

His cast plump for the latter, taking themselves very seriously as they stab, shoot, bellow curses and twitch maniacally at yet another death. The effect is to make much of Webster's melodrama ridiculous, as when David Rintoul's pompous Brachiano pauses from dying in agony to spring to his feet and reflect on "how miserable it is to die among women howling". The lack of charm is as fatal to the production as a poisoned photograph is to Brachiano's wife in the diverting flickering film sequence that depicts the lusty Duke's misdeeds. A gun-toting denouement echoes Reservoir Dogs, and like certain scenes in that film, The White Devil's litany of rape, woe and bloodshed left me wondering that people pay to be entertained by this.

James Joyce's Ulysses provoked a similar response on its publication in the 1920s. Scotland's Theatre Cryptic have adapted a passage that greatly offended the era's moral guardians - the licentious stream of Molly Bloom's consciousness. Sheelagh O'Kane makes a wonderfully earthy, sensuous Molly in Cathie Boyd's staging of Parallel Lines, writhing on and spilling over the edges of her crimson bed, her bosom all but in the front row. Boyd's questionable notion is to pair Joyce's text with onstage cello and clarinet, and operatic crooning from mezzo-soprano Monica Brett-Crowther. The effect is elegant and fey, adding little to our appreciation of Joyce, and rather contradicting the rude substance of his writing. O'Kane ends up floating in a water-filled glass cabinet. It's very pretty, but who knows what it means?

'Navy Pier': Soho Theatre, W1 (020 7478 0100), to 7 October; 'The White Devil': Lyric Hammersmith, W6 (020 8741 2311), to 28 October; 'Parallel Lines': Barbican Pit, EC2 (020 7638 8891), to Saturday

Comments