<preform>Stoning Mary, Royal Court Downstairs, London</br>Professor Bernhardi, Arcola, London</br>Amajuba (Like Doves We Rise), Criterion, London</preform>

A nice trick. If only it worked
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Xenophobia is in the air. Its potential escalation, with immigration turned into an election issue, is alarming. And that worry is now being raised, repeatedly, on the British stage in a variety of premières and pointed revivals.

Xenophobia is in the air. Its potential escalation, with immigration turned into an election issue, is alarming. And that worry is now being raised, repeatedly, on the British stage in a variety of premières and pointed revivals.

One line really stands out in Stoning Mary, the Royal Court debut of writer Debbie Tucker Green (the Olivier Awards' Most Promising Newcomer 2004). "This is about us not being them," stutters the unnamed man in the central scene, as he and his terrified wife stare at a child-soldier who is threatening them with a machete. Before this, the couple have been arguing over a prescription slip. Both are suffering from AIDS but only have enough money to buy medicine for one.

Now, you might presume the location is Africa, with parts for black British actors. But no, the 11-strong ensemble in Marianne Elliott's production are all white and talking with Thames Estuary accents. Why? Well, it's the dramatist who has specified the performers' skin colour, in her stage directions, and insisted the play is set in the country where it's performed. Presumably, her intention is to bring the Third World situation closer to home or to use neo-Brechtian Alienation techniques to make us consider their situation and how we aren't so far off that. In practice, alas, the concept just comes over as half-baked and unpersuasive.

Tucker Green's previous works, Born Bad and Dirty Butterfly, have been impressively taut. With stylised dialogue approaching free verse, she is part of a new wave of poetic playwrights, alongside Joanna Laurens and Zinnie Harris. Unfortunately though, her storyline and characters are underdeveloped here. Four quarrelsome pairs (including the soldier's parents and his victims' daughters) are seen in snatches, sometimes accompanied by doppelgängers or "egos" (ie actors who voice the protagonists' secret thoughts). The effect is, at best, vaguely satirical. One narrative thread implicitly links everybody in a cycle of aggression, bereavement and retribution, but that is among a bunch of loose ends. Meantime, the overlapping speeches resemble a musical score yet go round in wearisomely small circles. The script might actually work better as an opera libretto, enriched by melodies.

To their credit, some of Elliot's players capture the naturalistic, inarticulate and manic speech-patterns within the looping sentences. As the older sibling, Claire Rushbrook manages to be comical, vicious and distraught, jabbering away with strangely glazed eyes. Newcomer Claire-Louise Cordwell is also fierce as her kid-sister, who faces death by stoning. However, the conclusion is abrupt and ill-managed, and the designer's dramatic conversion of the theatre - with a blue thrust stage extending over the stalls to the edge of the circle - fails to inject the evening with a genuine buzz. The Royal Court, indeed, appears to have lost its cutting-edge. Artistic director Ian Rickson needs to get on a new roll.

By comparison, London's fringe theatres have been offering some superb productions. In an ambitious rep season of rarely-seen German plays (co-presented by Oxford Stage Company and Dumbfounded Theatre), Arthur Schnitzler's Professor Bernhardi is a fascinating study of institutionalised racism/religious prejudice. This is a Viennese hospital drama, written in 1912 and foreshadowing the Holocaust, as it focuses on covert anti-Semitism within the medical profession.

Christopher Godwin's gaunt, dignified Bernardi is the founder of a private hospital and a secular Jew who makes the mistake of banning a Catholic priest from administering the last rites to a patient who, he argues, would be scared to death by the ritual. The press stirs up the controversy, calling for Bernhardi to be tried for religious agitation. Behind closed doors, we see furious boardroom rows and chilling pincer movements as half of his colleagues and two-faced leading politicians turn on him. Mark Rosenblatt's production is staged, in tailcoats and wing-collars, on a narrow triangular stage with swishing hospital curtains. It is strongly cast (with John Stahl, Deka Walmsley and Dale Rapley), sharply observed, fluid and gripping. There are one or two brief confusions (due to doubling) and Samuel Adamson's adaptation includes some obtrusive modern phrases, but this revival makes Schnitzler look like the David Hare of his time, scrutinising the diseased morals of his nation.

Finally, Amujaba (Like Doves We Rise) is a wonderful piece of storytelling from South Africa, directed by Yael Farber. Five black and mixed-race actors simply relate their own life stories, remembering their childhoods under Apartheid - their families being broken up and fighting to survive in impoverished villages and violent townships. I say "simply". A few tin baths serve as the set, but the theatrical inventiveness is as ingenious as the stories are harrowing. When Bongeka Mpongwana, who was abandoned by her parents, recalls how she survived by begging, the baths become front doors on which she bangs, with her neighbours' voices echoing inside. Filled with water, the same tubs become a joyful symbol of rebirth, washing away the past. Each story is beautifully shaped, and told with a rich, deft, very poignant weave of speech and traditional choiring, playfulness and persistent grief.

k.bassett@independent.co.uk

'Stoning Mary': Royal Court, London SW1 (020 7565 5000), to 23 April, then touring; 'Professor Bernhardi': Arcola, London E8 (020 7503 1646), to 7 May; 'Amajuba (Like Doves We Rise)': Criterion, London WC2 (020 7413 1437), to 28 May

Comments