First Night: Resurrection Blues, Old Vic, London

A misfiring show to add to Spacey's catalogue of Old Vic blanks
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The Independent Culture

It's been a hectic week on the Arthur Miller front. In a revival of Two-Way Mirror at the Courtyard, Abi Titmuss lost her West End theatre virginity. In Stratford, the RSC unveiled a superb staging of The Crucible. And now at the Old Vic, there is the European premiere of Miller's penultimate play, Resurrection Blues, in a celebrity-studded production by the American film-maker Robert Altman.

This may sound (even to goggle-eyed Titmuss-watchers) like an ascending order of importance. But the key event of this mini-Miller fest is incontrovertibly the excellent Stratford revival that's bound, if there is any justice, for Shaftesbury Avenue.

By contrast, the posthumously produced Resurrection Blues demonstrates, I'm afraid that Miller did not have a natural gift for freewheeling satire and the dearth of mirth is aggravated by the negligent direction. On the two or three occasions that I laughed, it was because of the near-surreal degree to which the production was misfiring.

The play asks us to imagine the possible consequences if a revolutionary Messiah-like figure were to emerge from the oppressed peasantry in a fictitious South American banana republic. The military dictator (a disastrously miscast Maximillian Schell) thinks he can kill two birds with one stone - frighten the Saviour' s followers by crucifying him and rescue the economy by selling the worldwide screen rights to a New York advertising company.

The return of Christ as a rebuke to contemporary values is a subject with a long tradition. Just last week, Peter Brook brought to London his stage version of the famous Grand Inquisitor section of The Brothers Karamazov. Resurrection Blues endeavours to marry this theme to a satiric attack on the mercenary opportunism of the media.

It doesn't help that the basic premise fails to bear the slightest inspection. True, the death penalty is supported by the majority, but the long-term effects of allying itself to an act of barbarity would be fatal for any advertising company. Similarly, the military dictatorship could scarcely hit on a better method of ensuring insurrection than by nailing a potential martyr-figure to a cross in front of a global audience. The title, it turns out, partly refers to the erectile dysfunction of the dictator. All too aptly and yet perversely, it's the reluctant prospective director of the crucifixion footage (Jane Adams) who makes things rise again in that department, at any rate. That's the level of the humour.

Slumped in a state of permanent detumescence on Robin Wagner's monumental Inca-style set is Altman's bizarrely awful production. The distinguished cast look and sound as if they have been allowed to lose faith in themselves and in the material. Their various styles never cohere - how could Schell's rhythm-mangling, Teutonic, terminally unfunny dictator possibly be related to the shame-faced, Ango-American terminally unfunny James Fox who plays his intellectual cousin? Everyone - including Matthew Modine as the preppy Madison Ave executive and Neve Campbell as the general's injured, idealistic niece - gives the impression that they would rather be elsewhere. This creates just about the only point of unanimity with the audience. Once again, the taste and judgement of the Kevin Spacey's Old Vic regime are called into question.

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