Casanova, Lyric<br/>Free Outgoing, Theatre Upstairs, Royal Court, London

Casanova from a new perspective
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The Independent Culture

You can play a revealing game with dramatic or legendary characters by going on a shopping spree through world history in which you select their closest counterweights or anti-types. It produces some intriguingly indeterminate results. Is the "opposite" of the reprobate, larger-than-life Falstaff the repressive Lord Chief Justice (who also appears in Henry IV), or is his shameless but in a sense admirable realism better balanced by the embarrassing but in a strange sense admirable idealism of Don Quixote? It all depends upon which qualities you highlight. There isn't an objective or metaphysical antithesis.

The same applies to mythical real-life figures. Take Casanova. Who would present the sharpest inverted-twin characteristics to Casanova? A celibate? A homosexual? The vigorously imaginative company Told by an Idiot has joined forces with the powerful poet Carol Ann Duffy, who has enjoyed a great success with The World's Wife, a collection of poems that swerves the spotlight away from the male VIPs of our culture to their underrepresented spouses. So it's no surprise the Casanova they present in this show is a female version of the archetype.

I enjoyed the daffy flamboyance of the show's performance-art aesthetic. Played as if in a skeletal Venetian auditorium by a cast who vocally advertise their international origins, the piece bounds along as a kind of meta-costume-romp and is held together by a highly winning performance from the diminutive, doughty-delicate Hayley Carmichael. There are lashings of recorded music (Casanova was a mean violinist) and Greenaway-greets-Grimaldi jokes (for the dinner scenes, a rack of high, outlandish wigs is flown down with wittily approximate aim for the heads of line of toff guzzlers). The witty script carves up narration and dialogue in Europhone fashion.

The effect is diverting but incrementally tiresome because there's a slackness about the concept. The idea is that a female Casanova is all good things to all people, Lulu without the danger. Indeed, given the range of adjectives that are applied to her, she began to remind me of "Anne", the infinitely elusive and redefinable figure in Martin Crimp's ultra-post-modern play Attempts on Her Life.

Where this distaff Casanova cocks a snook at sexual scandal, the permanently off-stage Indian 15-year-old girl has notoriety thrust upon her with terrible effects in Free Outgoing, Anupama Chandrasekhar's very attractive and engagingly shrewd play. The Told by an Idiot extravaganza has jokey, over-ingratiating fun with its globetrotting violation of the dramatic unities; Chandrasekhar and director Indhu Rubasingham demonstrate the humane energy that can be released by staying put in one room. Set in an Indian village, the play traces the fallout that follows when the unseen Deepa is filmed on the mobile of the fellow pupil with whom she's having sex in the school art room.

Before long, she's downloadable on the internet; she and her brother have been expelled; and the colony of flats where they live is so besieged by journalists that the inhabitants are deprived of water and sanitation.

To some extent, the frame erected by the playwright is arbitrary. We see neither the boy nor Deepa (who takes to her room) and attention is focused instead on Malini, her appalled, increasingly isolated single mother (Loli Chakrabarti), and the any-port-in-a-storm relationship she tries to build up with the nerdy, undesirable colleague (lovely Raj Ghatak). I was very taken by the nimbus of humane uncertainty that Chandrasekhar throws round this latter character. It's sort of not his fault that he's a boring, tactless, mother-dominated nerd who hasn't the courage to jump off the shelf or to act on the (possibly) generous impulse that Malini stirs in him. And the frame, in keeping the girl voiceless, heightens our sense of this society's sexual double standards.

'Casanova' to 24 November. (0870 050 0511)'Free Outgoing' to 24 November (020-7565 5000)

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