The Card Index, Battersea Arts Centre, London

When absurdity is no longer enough
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The Independent Culture

I certainly wanted to like The Card Index, a play by the Polish poet, playwright and essayist Tadeusz Rozewicz. The 80-year-old author's first publications were made on an underground press during the Second World War, in which he was a member of the resistance and his brother was killed by the Gestapo. He has lived in Poland ever since, his work subjected to state censorship. But I'm afraid The Card Index (a re-staging of Peter Czajkowski's production for Brit-Pol Theatre, which gave the work its British premiere last year) struck me as a tedious and trivial piece of dated absurdism.

The drama takes place in the bedroom and mind of The Hero, called Viktor, Stefan, Pyotr, or Henrik, depending on whether he is addressed by his parents, girlfriend, uncle, or secretary. There are many other callers as well, who spring out of The Hero's mental file from various periods in his life. Sometimes they speak to him respectfully, even worshipfully – "When'', asks a journalist, "was your first encounter with the muse?'' – but mostly they interrogate and reproach. A neighbour shrieks at The Hero for having spied on her in her bath 25 years ago. Another visitor denounces the filthy conditions in bottling plants, and accuses The Hero of being "a fly in small beer''.

When The Hero sulks and clams up, the other characters complain that he's not doing his share: "Even in a Beckett play, somebody talks.'' The Hero also has something he tries to keep in the closet – a close-harmony trio of men with goatees and a vague resemblance to Lenin who periodically march around the room waving flags or doing riffs on single words, such as "martyrology''.

At times a sinister strand cuts this whimsy. A voice shouts contemptuous commands in German; a man with a bloodied shirt accuses The Hero of having forgotten that he killed him; The Hero tells a German girl that he and her father hunted in the forest, and, when she asks, "hunted what?'' replies "each other''.

But there are not enough of such moments to outweigh the silliness, nor do they lead anywhere: The Hero ends the play as he began it, pyjama-clad and phlegmatic. The timidity of The Card Index may reflect the author's times rather than his wishes: The talk of "clapping'', the programme explains, may be a coded reference to the applause demanded at Party meetings, and one scene, originally suppressed, contains such radical dialogue as "You don't know how hard it is to be a poet in our times... you think it's easy for waiters?'' But this explanation makes The Card Index no more entertaining for audiences used to the fancy and satire of a free society.

Brit-Pol's actors, admirably spirited, make this nonsense pass pleasantly enough, except for Peter Pacey as The Hero, whose actorish voice sounds out of place in this humble setting and who lacks the charm or intensity needed in a performer who never leaves the stage.

To 28 March (020-7223 2223)

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