We are ducking and diving over mountains, tracking a strategic road by a gorge that snakes far below. This simulated flight is viewed on TV monitors as politically opposed delegates argue about national boundaries in The Prisoner's Dilemma – David Edgar's new RSC play at The Other Place in Stratford.
Edgar here completes a worthy trilogy, following on from The Shape of the Table (1990) and Pentecost (1995) to grapple again with East European troubles in the aftermath of the Cold War. The Prisoner's Dilemma in fact starts at a round table, focusing on the tricky nature of peace negotiations. A bunch of trainee diplomats, aid workers and academics gather in 1989 for an international conference, some ironically quarrelling about conflict resolution. Over the next 12 years, their career paths veer but all are embroiled in talks or crossfire between the Kavkhars and the Drozhdans – fictional clans with languages based on Bulgarian and Azerbaijani.
Granted, one engages now and then with Finnish Gina (Penny Downie) as she struggles to reconcile the jumpy terrorist leader Kelima (Zoe Waites) with her Kavkhazian foes. Obviously, conflict resolution is also a hot topic from Ireland to Israel and Edgar raises worries about brinkmanship and Western facilitators' cultural imperialism. But dammit, that doesn't make The Prisoner's Dilemma top drama. Our protagonists' debates – in cod ropey English – are so laboured and arid you yearn to vault on stage in a balaclava and terminate all dialogue. Instance, one Kavkhazian negotiator speaks thus: "What exist there is a representative assembly, which the DPF refuse to recognise, which control with other thing our police."
To their credit Michael Attenborough's cast are mostly sure-footed and Waites' bitterness is gripping. Nevertheless, Downie strains to enliven by stressing every word and – though Edgar may slot in two front-line scenes, one fleeting romance and a joke-telling session – this play remains dead in the water. The Other Place's season of premieres is peaking and troughing more dramatically than those computer-generated mountains. For superior political dramas, see Peter Whelan's A Russian in the Woods and Martin McDonagh's Lieutenant of Inishmore in the very same venue, in rep.
Over at the Swan, slightly more fun is had at the premiere of Jubilee, a satire about Stratford's Shakespeare industry by Peter Barnes – a proclaimed enemy of Bardolatry who, however, accepted this RSC commission. Jubilee sends up the first official celebration of our national genius in his hometown in 1769, orchestrated by star-thesp David Garrick. Fireworks fizzle in pouring rain, the flooding Avon spews sewage, and local rustics proved canny, demanding guineas to tell visitors the time.
This fete was, as it stood, almost a farce accompli and Garrick produced his own Drury Lane comedy about it. Barnes' rather Jonsonian version of events offers some irresistible one-liners and, visually, Gregory Doran's production has some terrific grotesques – not least Carol Macready's as a monstrously squat madam. Unfortunately, the story sprawls and the bawdy slapstick is feeble. Nicholas Woodeson's Garrick is peculiarly low on brio. Barnes' main criticism is that the Shakespeare industry has always been about making money. But this satire itself very nearly sells out, ultimately ambivalently worshipping. One can't help further wondering if Doran's cast are wading through Jubilee merely to earn their keep.
Though hankered after, idolatrous devotion is denied the small-timers who cross paths in 3 Dark Tales at the Pit, performed by the award-winning physical troupe Theatre O. This young Lecoq-trained foursome are charismatic and slick as they combine clowning with silly gibberish and jiving.
Rather too many of their characters are old stereotypes, including a henpecked husband in frilly apron and a vampish adulterous wife. Only Carolina Valdes genuinely touches the heart as Amelia, a parentally-crushed secretary craving love.
Still, Theatre O could develop into the new Complicité. Lucien MacDougall as Amelia's boss, screws up his spouse's leaving note then crumples into a human ball of grief. Amelia's bid for liberty becomes fascinatingly dream-like too as she devours her pet goldfish, sheds her coat to dance with a lover, momentarily shimmers in orange sequins then drops dead. Mad but memorable.
The Prisoner's Dilemma: The Other Place, Stratford (01789 403403), to 13 October; Jubilee: Swan, Stratford (01789 403403), to 13 October; 3 Dark Tales: Pit, EC2 (020 7638 8891), to 4 AugustReuse content