Les Naufragés du Fol Espoir, Lowland Hall, Ingliston Walking, Holkham Hall, Norfolk; Cornelius Finborough, London

Théâtre du Soleil kick up a mighty storm, but a long slow walk in the country is a damp squib

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Now that's what I call storming. A gigantic mainsail is thrashing overhead, as if in a hurricane. One man clings to the yardarm while, down below, a sailor appears to be sliding, spread-eagled, off a pitching deck, followed by passengers rolling like tumbleweed.

What's wonderful is the grass-roots theatricality of veteran director Ariane Mnouchkine's epic production, Les Naufragés du Fol Espoir (Aurores) – aka "The Castaways of the Fol Espoir (Sunrises)", with English surtitles, at the Edinburgh International Festival. Loosely inspired by Jules Verne's 1897 novel Magellania, this visually stunning and politically barbed saga sees avaricious European capitalists and Utopian socialists shipwrecked, together, in a freezing wilderness near Cape Horn.

Shockingly not seen in Britain for two decades, Mnouchkine's famed Théâtre du Soleil ensemble, from Paris, conjure up mighty storm scenes with little more than electric fans, rope pulleys, and humorous physical-theatre tricks. Scarves flap wildly on invisible threads, and the low-tech aesthetic certainly comes as a relief when, these days, so many hip and unimaginative directors think we can't do without flickering screens.

This piece is, all the same, technically sophisticated and multi-layered. The shipwreck is simultaneously portrayed in miniature: a tiny clipper, seen by flashes of lightning, tossing on a bath of green, foaming water. Meanwhile, Verne's story is wittily framed by Mnouchkine within a secondary plot: the shooting of a silent movie by an amorous and quarrelsome, left-wing collective (implicitly with autobiographical elements), canned on the dystopian eve of the First World War. Though protracted, at more than four hours, and ultimately losing its satirical complexity to more simplistic didacticism, Les Naufragés is still unmissable.

As for fol espoir, surely it wasn't totally Panglossian to hope that Walking would be first-rate as well. Part of the Cultural Olympiad (care of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival), this al-fresco promenade piece is by the internationally revered director and visual artist Robert Wilson (with Dutch scenographer Theun Mosk and theatre-maker Boukje Schweigman, credited as collaborators). Wilson is Mnouchkine's coeval, but of the American avant-garde school. I have found his highly stylised productions, with dreamlike slow motion, compelling – but then I was not obliged to take part.

Walking turns out to be an exercise in irritation, simultaneously dictatorial and, to put it bluntly, half-arsed. It ought to be idyllic, in essence a rural stroll. Promenaders are dispatched from Holkham Hall in north Norfolk to meander through pastures and woods, over dunes to the sea. The landscape is scattered with sculptural installations. I assume the emotional journey I went on was, however, not quite what was envisaged. "Angels" (guides posted along the way) imply you're en route to Nirvana, whispering, "Relax and enjoy". But you must remain in single file; follow the white stones; and take very, very slow steps.

The walk is three miles. Wilson has decreed that you'll cover the ground over three-and-a-half hours. By the second field I was already infuriated and wanting to run wild, in protest. Casting off the hectic velocity of modern life can inspire contemplation, but Wilson spoils the ramble with his restrictions.

I did calm down for a bit in the middle (by pretending that I was an arthritic nonagenarian). I observed the flora's microhabitats more closely: the perennial ryegrass and hoary plantain, the red sorell and the silverweed. I loved the rustling reeds, loved the towering pine wood. But you can do that any weekend, free.

As for the installations, perhaps they symbolise life's rites of passage. A pseudo-primitive temple at the start has a fascinating deep, black, conical hole surrounded by walls of auburn willow branches, like shaggy hair writ large. At the end, on the sweeping shore, winched "sky beds" tilt you back till you're gazing at the clouds, which feels like a transcendent, poetic death, despite the sore disappointment of noticing planks and pipes that look as if they were sourced from B&Q.

Lastly, the Finborough Theatre on the London fringe deserves its reputation for rediscovering forgotten gems, but Cornelius (originally written for Ralph Richardson in 1935) isn't a blinder, directed by Sam Yates. For sure, J B Priestley's Depression-era office drama has sharp contemporary resonances, for Jim Cornelius's small, aluminium-importing firm is going bust, with a creditors' meeting to be attended by a noxious banker.

Although pleasantly humane, Priestley spells out his criticisms of the capitalist system in plodding, middlebrow mode, with impoverished salesmen passing through. On the night I attended, Alan Cox was semi-bellowing in a small space, never quite managing to weld Cornelius's different sides: cheery chap, romantic dreamer and lonely depressive, let down by the daily grind and economic injustices. Still, Yates's cast are certainly commendable, and stardom beckons for newcomer Emily Barber who, as the new typist, Judy, exudes pert sweetness with a slight edge and a mysterious smile.

'Les Naufragés du Fol Espoir' (0131-473 2000) to 28 Aug; 'Walking' (01603-7664000) to 2 Sep; 'Cornelius': (0844 847 1652) to 8 Sep

Critic's Choice

The outstanding verbatim musical London Road, recording local residents' reactions to the 2006 serial-killing of women in Ipswich, is at the NT Olivier, London (to 6 Sep). You Me Bum Bum Train, the promenade production with audience participation that's become a cult hit, is at Empire House in Stratford, east London (to 19 Sep; tickets via the Barbican).