Human Rites, Southwark Playhouse, London

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The Independent Culture

"I've always found the idea of a Desert Island Discs book pointless and banal," declares the Professor in Amélie Nothomb's play.

"I've always found the idea of a Desert Island Discs book pointless and banal," declares the Professor in Amélie Nothomb's play. "But posed in reverse the question becomes crucial. Which books would you have fewer scruples about destroying?" You might think that this query would have ceased to be academic. The country is in the second winter of war; the city is under siege; food is in short supply; and the cold is unbearable. Cremating the library, volume by volume, seems the only way of staving off hypothermia.

Despite the appalling conditions, the question of how far human beings are prepared to go in order to survive remains irritatingly abstract in this piece, where the suffering is too notional to impart a chill.

Dismissing one of the books that he had championed in the past, the Professor says that it was written by someone who had never experienced hunger, and that his laudatory article about it was written by someone who had never experienced cold. For all the bleakness of some of its detail (the succumbing to unwanted sexual advances, say, for the animal warmth of the friction), there's such a heartless wit and pessimistic glee in Nothomb's approach that you may want to level a similar charge against Human Rites.

Translated from the French by this production's director, Natalie Abrahami, the the piece is a three-hander in which the fiftysomething Professor (Edmund Dehn) becomes involved in a grisly ménage a trois with Marina, a young student (a far too radiant-looking Miriam Hughes) and his academic assistant, Daniel (Edmund Kingsley).

There is mention, at one point, of Fahrenheit 451, and the attempt by people in that novel to memorise the literature that the government is bent on destroying. But Nothomb invents most of the books that are discussed and dropped into the stove: it's hard to work up much indignation over the fate of Uffington's The Honour of Horror or Esperandio's Screeching Silks.

Nothomb uses the situation to engage in some predictable satire against the academy and its relationship with literature. Books were always just "fodder" for his theses and self-advancement, Marina tells the Professor, so he really shouldn't jib at now having to turn them into fuel for his bodily survival. And, sure enough, it turns out that the one volume he really dotes on and desires to save is a trashy romantic novel, The Observatory Ball, that he had excoriated in print.

Weighing up the relative merits of protecting his library and his progeny in time of war, Evelyn Waugh grimly joked that children can be replaced, books can't. The trouble with Human Rites is that the characters aren't confronted by any comparably agonising dilemma. They are ciphers whose decline is dramatised so systematically that the effect is smug.

To 22 January (020-7620 3494)

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