The Earthly Paradise, Almeida, London <br></br> Julius Caesar, Swan, Stratford-Upon-Avon <br></br> Woyzeck, Gate, London

It's 'Pygmalion' meets the Pre-Raphs
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The Independent Culture

In The Earthly Paradise - Peter Whelan's new biodrama about William Morris, his wife Jane and friend Dante Gabriel Rossetti - Morris is so enchanted by the Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire that for years it becomes the jointly rented, Morris-Rossetti country retreat. Yet this does not lead to a happy ménage à trois, for Mrs Morris stays there with DGR while her husband absents himself - heading off to Iceland. As we gather from Morris's reminiscing monologues, this is partly because he believes Rossetti's art is more important than his own happiness. Moreover, Rossetti and Jane have loved each other ever since he plucked her from her lowly roots to become his muse. Indeed, she may have married Morris only because Rossetti was already engaged.

This is a little like the Bloomsbury Set film, Carrington, crossed with Pygmalion and Noël Coward's Design For Living. However, here Rossetti (Alan Cox) becomes alarmingly depressed and unstable after determining to keep his love purely spiritual. Jane (Saffron Burrows) is increasingly frustrated at being idolised. By contrast, Morris (Nigel Lindsay) starts out feeling artistically inferior, but is then inspired by Iceland's egalitarianism, grows critical of Rossetti, and steels himself with optimism - hoping his marriage can be mended and the world made better through socialism.

Whelan is an intelligent and warmly humane dramatist with an eye for symbolic parallels - not least that of the shared house and lady. Centrally, he is exploring how Morris's anti-hierarchical ideals applied (or didn't) to his personal life. The dialogue is laced with seemingly casual yet poignantly loaded comments, while the men's aesthetic theories are winningly introduced via wry banter. Robert Delamere's production is mostly excellent and visually beautiful, being set (by designer Simon Higlett) in a ghostly panelled chamber with peeling white paint. Lindsay is vigorous and earthy as Morris, and Cox is subtly louche, cynical, and witty as Rossetti. However, Burrows becomes slightly boring as the stunning but endlessly fraught, panting Jane; the trio's co-dependence can seem static; and a couple of Morris's later speeches sound like intrusive lectures. All-in-all though, worth catching.

As for other earthly paradises, Ancient Rome clearly isn't the ideal democracy in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, as the potential dictator is assassinated leading to mob riots, civil war and a heap of suicidal impalings. Unfortunately, David Farr's RSC touring production is also far from perfect.

Initially, this production looks as if it's going to be excitingly contemporary. Farr has deliberately exposed the workings, so the technical crew sit on stage under a scaffold of girders, computer-generating sounds of roaring crowds. This is, presumably, applying anti-hierarchical ideas to theatrical practice and exposing how political movements can be manufactured. Additional propagandist film footage is projected on to billboards, showing Christopher Saul's Caesar silhouetted like some Mafia godfather-going-on-demigod. Meanwhile, in what looks like a mass demo, a noisy crowd in combats and T-shirts rush in and scale the scaffolding.

Nonetheless, one then starts feeling puzzled, for it's hard to believe this trendy throng are actually cheering the warmongering Caesar and yelling what sounds like "Zeig heil". Henceforth, the setting comes over as a bemusingly vague jumble of locales. Adrian Schiller's Cassius and Gary Oliver's Mark Anthony convey explosive rage, yet none of the cast really grasp the play's political rhetoric. Let's hope Farr will be back on form when he takes over as artistic director of the Lyric Hammersmith next year.

Meanwhile, new artistic director Thea Sharrock has got off to a great start at the tiny Gate Theatre where Daniel Kramer's staging of Woyzeck proves extraordinarily inspired, successfully combining 19th- and 20th- century elements.

An alarm bell rings - aggressively. A faint beam of light shines on a clockface with no hands, and Edward Hogg's pallid Woyzeck - hunched over a rusty child's tricycle - pedals round and round in this oppressively gloomy realm. Sometimes he is seen with a fellow soldier or his unfaithful sweetheart, Marie, slumped over his shoulder - like broken Victorian dolls or symbolic burdens of exhaustion and grief.

Büchner's underdog is, of course, already mentally buckling under the strain of being treated little better than an animal. What's electrifying is how Kramer makes this oft-revived tragedy feel new, profoundly tender and raw. Myriam Acharki, as Marie, is an unsettling skeletal beauty, loving but destructively bitter. Hogg transforms from a wimpy, gentle innocent into a scrawny punk, hurling himself up the walls like a wild cat. The seedy fairground scenes feature macabre monsters, not least a kinky man-horse sporting a harness and tutu. In the tavern, a juke box plays Elvis hits and Tim Chipping's brutish Drum Major appears to jive with Woyzeck as he beats him into the ground. Bizarrely brilliant.

k.bassett@independent.co.uk

'The Earthly Paradise': Almeida, London N1 (020 7359 4404), to 8 Jan; 'Julius Caesar': Swan, Stratford and touring (0870 609 1110), to 3 May; 'Woyzeck': Gate, London W11 (020 7229 0706), to Sat

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