The Blue Dragon, Barbican, London<br/>Reading Hebron, Orange Tree, London<br/>Snake in the Grass, Print Room, London

Robert Lepage returns with a stylish drama about ageing, East-West difference and life's chances
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

This is life seen by flashes of lightning. Indeed, 20 years have passed in the blink of an eye, because The Blue Dragon – devised by Quebec's world-class director Robert Lepage – is a hiatus-leaping sequel to his early Dragon's Trilogy.

In that triptych, the final setting was 1987 and Pierre Lamontagne, a young artist, was quitting Canada for the Far East. In The Blue Dragon, we find Pierre (played by a grey-haired Lepage) in Shanghai: a gentle-mannered gallery owner going through mid-life turbulence.

He lives in an ex-industrial atelier, yet now faces eviction from property developers. At the same time his old flame Claire (Marie Michaud, also co-writer) visits. She's an advertising exec focused on adopting a baby, but she could come between Pierre and his new lover, a young artist (Tai Wei Foo) whose work he has fostered.

The Blue Dragon isn't completely brilliant. Some scenes fall slightly flat. Nonetheless, its tenderness is poignant, Lepage combining quiet, naturalistic intimacy with dazzling, poetic images. The skylights in Pierre's shadowy loft blaze electric-blue in a thunder storm. They're magically transformed into the portholes of Claire's incoming jumbo jet (using projection screens and sliding floors). And Tai Wei Foo dances in a mask and robes, like some Beijing Opera goddess, against a vast swirl of digital snow. Through the prism of a tragicomic love triangle, Lepage ruminates expansively (in English, French and Mandarin) on East and West, lines of communication and division, sweeping cultural changes, and what alternative paths a person might take.

In Reading Hebron, by Toronto playwright Jason Sherman, Nathan Abramowitz is a liberal, Jewish intellectual who has never set foot in the Middle East. Yet he becomes obsessed by the 1994 Hebron massacre. That was the dark day when Baruch Goldstein, a US-born West Bank settler, shot dead 29 Muslims in the mosque at the Cave of the Patriarchs – a site considered sacred by both Judaic and Islamic worshippers. Goldstein was a known extremist who'd apparently vowed to revenge Arab attacks on Jews.

Evidently, those events continue to reverberate today, with the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, now, uncertainty about the future, following Tunisia and Egypt's regime changes. Ergo, Sherman's play will be engrossing and illuminating. Alas, not so. Reading Hebron is a wasted opportunity, an inept political-cum-personal drama. Played out under white spotlights around a black table, Sam Walters's fluid production may give the impression, superficially, that Sherman's script is a stylish collage. As David Antrobus's Nathan tries to learn more about the massacre, phoning libraries and thumbing through the inquiry report – a supporting cast of four dart in and out, playing multiple characters with minimal fuss. One minute, they're witnesses giving evidence to the commission. The next, they're ringing in as Nathan's bitter ex or his fussy mother, insisting that he celebrate Passover.

Basically, though, Sherman's script is a scrappy hotchpotch, neither investigative nor emotionally engaging. It's arid, too, substituting a reading list for dialogue in one scene. And a fantasy sequence in which Nathan turns game-show host, demanding that Noam Chomsky and other opinion-formers shrink their views on Arab-Jewish relations to 30-second soundbites, is embarrassingly stupid.

No brilliant new insights are to be gained either, though presumably we're meant to be startled by Nathan's wracked conclusion that it wasn't just a lone madman who was responsible for the massacre (as the commission held), but the entire Jewish people – for harbouring xenophobic feelings.

In Alan Ayckbourn's Snake in the Grass, Annabel is obviously going to fall victim either to her bonkers, murderous sister Miriam, or else the ghost of their abusive father. Will Annabel's weak heart hold out when – as sole inheritor of his estate – she's blackmailed by his menacing former nurse then embroiled in a serial-killing spree?

Frankly, who cares when this is such a fifth-rate thriller? After a string of top-notch Ayckbourn revivals, Snake in the Grass (from 2002), at once cliché-ridden and implausible, looks like the work of an over-prolific hack.

For Lucy Bailey's production, designer William Dudley has created a dilapidated tennis-court setting, with ivy crawling up wire fencing and seeping fog. It's a pity the ghost in the ball-firing machine is clumsily managed. Moreover, while Sarah Woodward is gripping as the sullen Miriam, Susan Wooldridge is an oddly camp Annabel, like Mr Humphries from Are You Being Served? played by Penelope Keith.

That said, Bailey's new fringe venue is very enticing: a small, 1950s ex-printworks tucked down a candlelit passage in Notting Hill. All it needs now is inspired programming.

'The Blue Dragon' (0845 120 7550) to 26 Feb; 'Reading Hebron' (020-8940 3633) to 12 Mar; 'Snake in the Grass' (0844 477 1000) to 5 Mar

Next Week:

Kate Bassett gawps at Frankenstein and his Creature in Danny Boyle's National Theatre starry crowd-puller

Theatre Choice

The Sheffield Crucible's David Hare season includes his outstanding early play Plenty. A generation lose their way post-Second World War, with Hattie Morahan, above, seeking thrills and lost ideals (to 26 Feb). At London's Comedy Theatre, a pupil accuses her teachers of lesbianism in Lillian Helman's 1930s drama The Children's Hour (to 7 May).