THEATRE Decameron The Gate, London

Robert Hanks on a flawed but graceful handling of Boccaccio
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The Independent Culture
Ten stories a night, for 10 nights: it doesn't take a great mental effort to work out that staging the Decameron in one evening means either stooping to a kind of Reduced Boccaccio Company absurdity, or cutting the numbers drastically. The most obvious thing to do would be to present a representative selection of 10 tales, one from each night (since each night supposedly deals with a different topic). Nick Ward's version, the latest instalment in the Gate's "New Playwrights, Ancient Sources" season, resists the temptations to give us a statistical sample - he doesn't even give us 10 stories by my count, though it depends partly on what you count as a story. Instead, he presents a more thematically coherent compilation, taking Boccaccio's central topic, love, and setting it firmly - a tad too firmly - within its supposed context.

The context is plague-time: men and women who tell the stories have fled Florence to avoid infection. The way in which this is conveyed to you is effective enough, but crude: when you enter the theatre, you encounter a thick fog of dry ice; bodies lie in a long narrow pit that runs most of the length of the auditorium; a dark-robed figure stands in shadows at one end of the room. He opens the action by singing a "Kyrie"; bodies clamber up out of the pits; and, at this point, you feel yourself sinking into a big pit of cliche.

Fortunately, it's mostly uphill from here. There are still over-literal moments - the story of a woman being served her lover's heart for supper is illustrated by some Galloping Gourmet-style cookery, with real ingredients and a real stove - and you feel Ward's production could afford to go easier on the symbolism, particularly the sex / death juxtapositions. When a young man is murdered by his lover's brothers, they stab him in the groin with lots of pelvic thrusts, so it looks quite a lot like sex. Before he cuts the lover's heart out, the jealous husband delicately traces a circle around his victim's nipple with a knife (sexy!) - and the butchery involves lots of jerking around on top of the body, so that looks quite like sex, too.

It's hard to say, though, whether these intrusive moments are simply lapses, or whether they're a necessary counterpoint to the grace, narrative intricacy, hilarity and sheer beauty on display elsewhere: an on-stage shower is preceded by the perfect pastoral of a description of a walk through a green valley to bathe in a clear pool; the erotic tension of a chess-game between a lady and her undeclared lover dissolves into a kind of comedy thriller when he visits her in bed to find her husband already there. Stories are folded within stories; the excellent cast swap narratives around, shifting from narrating to being characters within the story (something that makes identifying them from the programme rather hard). This is clearly not a perfect "10", but there's richness in its imperfections.

To 17 Aug (0171-229 5387)

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