Lars Norén is one of Scandinavia's leading dramatists, or so it says on the cover of the published text of Blood. Crikey. Who needs a Nordic winter to reduce you to suicidal gloom when your top playwrights are this bad? It beggars belief that this glossy, pretentious piece is now being treated to a main house Royal Court production, blandly translated into English, directed by James Macdonald and starring Francesca Annis. The plot line is excruciatingly predictable from Scene Two, when Eric, a psychiatrist, quotes from Oedipus Rex after we've heard all about how he and his unhappy wife, Rosa, have struggled to find their little boy. By way of political context, the latter "disappeared'' two decades earlier in Pinochet's Chile where Eric and Rosa were imprisoned socialists. Gosh, could the allusion to the archetypal incestuous child of Freudian theory be significant? Eric has got tickets to Oedipus too. And wasn't Scene One a television interview with Rosa, a writer, about the relationship between life and art? What do you know! Eric is having a secret affair with Luca who's young enough to be his son and who says something en passant about looking for his parents and having been a prisoner. He has something wrong with his foot, just like Oedipus! Don't tell me Luca's going to bump into Rosa and think she's very attractive and...
This clunking update of Sophocles hopes to look sophisticated with Eric and Rosa sitting around in their chic Paris flat saying pseudo-clever things like, "It's only in the theatre that beauty resembles atonement.'' The TV programmes which book-end the play presumably aim to satirise the interfering, lowbrow shallowness of the modern media. However, the whole evening feels banal and morally hypocritical. Rosa worries that she has sold out by airing her personal griefs in public, then we have to sit through a desperately clichéd S&M scene where Nicholas Le Prevost's Eric drags out an old interrogation lamp and knocks Annis about - with her blouse, of course, ripped open. Norén's idea of a brutal inquisitor looks crass after Pinter's comparable scenes in One For The Road, but the acting is better than the script. Tom Hardy is an excellent newcomer whose scruffy Luca is physically ardent, needy and explosive while Annis manages to be ice-cool, vulnerable and sexually demanding.
Blood is in no short supply in Shakespeare's notoriously violent Titus Andronicus where, under a decadent regime, mothers' sons are slaughtered and a forest pit serves as a grave. Returning in triumph to Ancient Rome with Tamora, Queen of the Goths, in tow, the eponymous army general sacrifices her eldest boy. Then Titus's daughter, Lavinia, is raped and mutilated before he bakes Tamora's other sons in a pie. I was bothered by the blood, in absolutely the wrong way, in the RSC's second-rate production. To be fair, the cast, led by David Bradley, avoids reducing this tragedy to shock-horror melodrama. However, director Bill Alexander seems blind to what's staring him in the face: that the atrocities only become harrowing when the physical and psychological effects ring true. This production's inaccuracies are almost offensively distracting. In the scene where Eve Myles's raped Lavinia staggers away, with her tongue and hands cut off, you do not want to be asking yourself how her frock's V-neck can have got soaked with gore without there being a drop on her chin or sleeves.
Rome looks impressively vast and harsh at first, with a towering grey wall and a god's face - a huge gold mask - staring out over us with hollow eyes. However, all directorial ideas seem to go out the window, and the combinations of civilisation and savagery are never convincing. The Goth boys - dragged to Rome in chains - look as if they've spent the afternoon at the hair salon preparing for a fashion shoot. The distinct Scottish accent of Maureen Beattie's feisty Tamora and the men's baggy ethnic trousers might make you think of clan hatreds from Europe to the Middle East, but any such divisions fade into a cultural mishmash. Bradley is an extraordinary flinty actor, gaunt as a scarecrow, and he has a few poignant moments here - breaking into a smile when Lavinia welcomes him home with a bear hug. However, his Lear-like rising madness seems restrained. Others miss Shakespeare's dark jokes, and cunning tricks are executed too roughly. Still, Joe Dixon is exhilarating as the shamelessly murderous Aron, driven by a real passion for Tamora and sarcastically playing the black devil when he is cursed as such by his racist captors.
British imperialists and Irish rogues prove to be entertaining and politically bleak in John Bull's Other Island. This rarely staged but terrifically good play by George Bernard Shaw was penned in 1904 when devolved self-government seemed imminent in Ireland. We follow Broadbent, an apparently decent English Liberal from London, to poor, rural Rosscullen, accompanied by his sardonic Irish-born business partner, Doyle. Broadbent turns ludicrously romantic, instantly adoring the Emerald Isle and Doyle's ex-sweetheart. Then he starts electioneering with smarmy handshakes all round. The surprise character twists are sharp, playing games with national stereotypes and frequently overturning your assumptions about who is a good sort, who the fool, and who the canny exploiter. Directed by Dominic Dromgoole, Charles Edwards is particularly fine as the pukka, unstoppable Broadbent. Actually, Shaw's deft combination of charming farce, seriously nasty manoeuvres and a far-reaching, dark vision of capitalism make this play more impressive than his more famous Pygmalion. In period costume, but still pertinent.
'Blood': Royal Court, London SW1 (020 7565 5000), to 25 Oct; 'Titus Andronicus': RST, Stratford-upon-Avon (0870 609 1110), to 7 Nov; 'John Bull's Other Island': Tricycle, London NW6 (020 7328 1000), to 25 OctReuse content