THEATRE / Do you believe in pharaohs?: Paul Taylor on Empty Space's sheet-wise The Curse of the Pharaohs

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IT'S NOW 70 years since the archaeologist Howard Carter and his patron, the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon, made their historic discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, the 14th-century BC boy-king. If you try to picture this, your imagination tends to go corny and big-budget on you, hiring Cecil B De Mille or David Lean to throw up images of lavish, leaden literalism, drenched in Technicolor. A refreshing paradox, then, that with Robin Brooks's thought-provoking new play The Curse of the Pharaohs, this opulent subject should be tackled by Empty Space, a company committed to bringing stories alive with the barest possible means.

Were a mad gunman to run amok in the Lyric Studio at the moment, you certainly wouldn't have to search far for bandages. Resourcefully evoking an arid desert atmosphere (and an eerie touch of the necrophiliac), long strips of what looks like mummy cloth are hung all around Anna Georgiadou's fine set. This fabric is, so to speak, unusually material to the play's purposes. As the Aladdin's cave comes to resemble an opened- up Pandora's box, the collapsing world of the tomb's violators is symbolised in Andrew Holmes's absorbing production by the sheets, which start to slip disconcertingly from their frames and drop to the floor. And the spooky, curse-suggesting correspondences - such as the fact that Peter Glancy's Carnarvon dies from an insect bite in exactly the same spot as a wound on Tutankhamun's cheek - are given a dark and determined emphasis by the staging. To the clamour of dizzy, muezzin-like wailing, the Earl's chair is coiled in mummy bands and his body draped so that it can double as the boy-king's sarcophagus.

Insufficiently agnostic, perhaps, on the topic of the curse, Brooks's play is sharply alive to the many cultural and social ironies in the situation. Nick Rawling's Carter is all affronted dignity at the idea of Egyptian 'baboons' intruding on his patch (Carnarvon had bought a concession in the valley), but seems to suffer from an irritated sense of class inferiority in his clandestine romantic relationship with Evelyn, the Earl's daughter (a sweetly suffering Sophie McConnell). 'You don't seem to care about now, only then,' she woundedly tells the obsessed archaeologist. It's the same charge, in essence, as that made by Saad Zaghlul (Adam Fahey), leader of the burgeoning Nationalist movement. For the scholar, the present is meaningless without the past; for the wily politician, the past is useless without the present. You have to make history make history. But how can Egypt seriously claim Tut's trove as a symbol of its heritage, when there aren't even any Egyptian Egyptologists? To which the play's implicit answer is: And whose fault is that?

The dialogue in some of the play's short scenes is occasionally a touch diagrammatic. For instance, you wonder whether Evelyn, Carter and the Earl would react to the sight of the tomb so absolutely in character as to say, respectively and in sequence: 'This is beautiful', 'This is history', 'This is gold, all gold'. It sounds about as spontaneous as 'This is a small step for man . . . '. Contradictorily, I found myself thinking (a) this play has too many themes and (b) wouldn't it be good if there were flashbacks to flesh out this irony: that Tut's name was quickly scrubbed, like Stalin's, from the official record and yet 3,000 years later he became a household name?

'The Curse of the Pharaohs' continues to 23 January at the Lyric Studio, Hammersmith, London W6 (081-741 8701).

(Photograph omitted)