Tamar's Revenge, Swan, Stratford-Upon-Avon<br/>Dirty Blonde, Duke of York's, London<br/>The Arab-Israeli Cookbook, Gate, London<br/>Damages, Bush, London

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The Independent Culture

It's curtains for Crown Prince Amnon in Tamar's Revenge. The eldest son of King David is eventually slaughtered at supper in this biblical tragedy dramatised by Spain's 17th-century playwright, Tirso de Molina. With a wine goblet still clutched in one hand and a knife in his neck, Matt Ryan's Amnon sprawls backwards over the table, arms outstretched like some inverted Christ-figure.

It's curtains for Crown Prince Amnon in Tamar's Revenge. The eldest son of King David is eventually slaughtered at supper in this biblical tragedy dramatised by Spain's 17th-century playwright, Tirso de Molina. With a wine goblet still clutched in one hand and a knife in his neck, Matt Ryan's Amnon sprawls backwards over the table, arms outstretched like some inverted Christ-figure.

If not the devil incarnate, he was a rotten egg. We've seen him scorn the female sex, then succumb to a crazed passion for his sister, Tamar. He tries to seduce her through a pretending game and; when that ploy fails, he rapes her, reviles her and never shows remorse. Amnon's macho half-brothers and buddies hardly raise an eyebrow, and even the old king - casting judicious punishments aside - forgives his heir, sparing no second thought for his daughter. Eventually, after seeming to be overwhelmed by self-loathing, Tamar regains ground as her throne-craving brother Absalom assassinates Amnon. King David is driven mad with grief.

The trouble is Tamar's Revenge also proves a punishing evening for the audience. Who ought to shoulder the blame? James Fenton is exonerated. His new translation incisively handles Amnon's philosophising about being a riven, living paradox. Other lyrical passages, spoken by John Stahl's David, flow like a sinuous, glittering river, and the play itself is a sporadically fascinating curio. Though this work doesn't quite qualify as proto-feminist, Tirso (who was also a priest) condemns male chauvinism remarkably strongly while also being surprisingly sympathetic in his depiction of polygamy. Stahl's shaggy bear of a David greets his multiple, welcoming wives with touching warmth and tenderness. This little-known play also shares some interesting common ground with the Metaphysical poets, with the revenge tragedies of Shakespeare's English contemporaries and with Hamlet, As You Like It, and A Winter's Tale (featuring a mad prince, role-playing wooers, and a very dark version of a pastoral reunion).

As for the production, the sandy stage is winningly simple and the culture-spanning costumes blend Middle Eastern robes with modern western gear, reminding you that Amnon's mates aren't that far off Neil LaBute's callous rotters in In the Company of Men. But, alas, Simon Usher's directing seems clueless, and this is after an extra-long rehearsal period plus a delayed press night. He does nothing to disguise the prolific Tirso's rushed narrative developments and his young actors are all at sea. They desperately attempt to conceal this by staring intently into the middle-distance and hollering. Katherine Kelly's Tamar has some ambiguous, besotted moments but then rants monotonously. As Amnon, Ryan hurls himself against walls and gabbles his speeches, contriving to make his torments thoroughly tedious. One can hardly wait for him to bite the dust. Let's hope the RSC's Spanish Golden Age season, which started brilliantly, picks up again after this leaden affair.

It's a welcome relief to see Mae West reincarnated and swaggering downstage in Dirty Blonde, taking the sexual upper-hand as she plays the hussy with ballsy humour. Most West End biodramas about showbiz celebs are peculiarly drab and plodding. But this neat chamber play - written by and starring the New York actress Claudia Shear - is much more engaging, basically because it tells a second story at the same time. It deserved the Tony Award nominations it won for its New York run in 2000.

You get ample vignettes of Shear's Mae, working her way up the Vaudeville ladder to Hollywood stardom with a nervous energy under the brash egocentricity. You glimpse her being outrageously suggestive with a feather in her 1926 Broadway debut, Sex; giving the judge who imprisoned her for indecency some fantastic cheek; perfecting her image in the show Diamond Lil, then struggling to preserve that look, becoming a feisty but grotesque caricature of herself in old age.

What's clever is these scenes are intercut with a present-day rom-com about two sexually timid but droll Mae West fans. An out-of-work actress called Jo (Shear doubling and looking frumpy) and a shy librarian named Charlie (bald, bespectacled Kevin Chamberlain) meet at West's tomb. They become "just good friends", and eventually both dress up as their raunchy heroine. This is, admittedly, a sugary ending and one or two scenes drag. However, the script is witty, strewn with West's wisecracks. James Lapine's production, set in a pink cube, is slick, with frills kept to a minimum. And crucially, Shear and Chamberlain are genuinely likable and vivacious.

Those who are looking for a precise lookalike may be disappointed, but Shear's easy-going, hip-waggling impersonation is perhaps the point. She's playing a bit fast-and-loose with an icon who ought to have appreciated that attitude.

Now, heading back to Israel to investigate today's troubled times, The Arab-Israeli Cookbook is an illuminating piece of verbatim theatre. Edited by Robin Soams and co-directed by Rima Brihi and Tim Roseman, this is a medley of re-enacted interviews which they have recently conducted with Jews, Muslims and Christians - young and old, rich and poor, gay and straight - in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Bethlehem, beleaguered Palestinian settlements etc. The charming thing is these people start off talking about their favourite recipes and tipples, from traditional stuffed vine-leaves to stiff whiskies. The actors, including Sheila Hancock, play multiple characters and cook on an open-plan set with a kitchen table and working electric rings.

After so many news headlines, you suddenly spend time with ordinary locals, appreciate their everyday lives and the subtler shading in this complex, multicultural society, as well as learn fascinating facts about their culinary traditions and economic difficulties. The political violence which they all dread, or have directly witnessed, seeps into the conversation. What mainly comes across, though, is warm humanity, intelligence and hope with a few flashes of anger and racism. It would have been interesting to have a few more militant voices in the mix. Some of the cast sentimentalise their characters, too, so the evening feels like a bit of a love-in. But this is eye-opening and valuable work nonetheless.

Finally, Damages looks set to develop into a 21st-century revenge drama. In Steve Thompson's debut, the presses are ready to roll but a crisis suddenly puts a downmarket tabloid on hold. The sassy libel lawyer, Amanda Drew's Abigail, wants the arrogant young night editor, Paul Albertson's Bas, to pull the big splash which is a scandalous topless photo of a kids' TV presenter.

The plot thickens with exposés by Thompson of the staff's conflicts of interest, entangled private lives and moral compromises. Roxana Silbert's cast are extremely assured, especially Phil McKee as Lister - Bas's hard-bitten, sneering second-in-command - and John Bett as the old-school revise editor, sipping wine and fastidiously tutting over spelling mistakes. Thompson knows his hacks and could easily be fast-tracked to write a TV soap, but this is not a hugely original script and, as the clock ticks, the sustained tension becomes oddly boring. Maybe wait for his next one.

k.bassett@independent.co.uk

'Tamar's Revenge': Swan, Stratford (0870 609 1110), to 2 Oct; 'Dirty Blonde': Duke of York's, London WC2 (0870 060 6623), to 28 Aug; 'The Arab-Israeli Cookbook': Gate, London W11 (020 7229 0706), to 10 July; 'Damages': Bush, London W6 (020 7610 4224), to 3 July

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