THEATRE / Duet rearranged as Bohemian rhapsody

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE DOOR flies open and in comes Dylan Thomas reeling off some bardic gibberish and then pausing to vomit in a bucket of beer before falling down the stairs. 'Ah well, one less slim volume in the offing,' sneers the poet George Barker, played as a Brylcreemed lizard. I think that's pretty cheap. If I knew anything about Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde, John Byrne's treatment of them might strike me the same way. Old friends of the two painters have already been dismissing Byrne's play as 'rubbish' and 'crap'.

The two Roberts met and fell in love at the Glasgow School of Art, descended on wartime Fitzrovia, and enjoyed a seven-year vogue at the Lefevre Gallery until they went into a decline hastened by booze and Abstract Expressionism. Beyond these facts, gleaned from the programme for Colquhoun and MacBryde, they have only impinged on me as the designers of George Devine's 1953 King Lear. When asked for something simple and austere, they turned in a set resembling a monolithic bunch of bananas. Had they raided their past work for that image? And does it link up with the scene where MacBryde rounds on his banana- eating companion for misappropriating their paint kitty to 'lavish on exotica'? Mr Byrne, a fellow artist well able to assess their debt to Braque and their place in the neo-Romantic movement, could sort things out. It is from choice, not ignorance, that he has fictionalised them into a fairy-tale of old Soho.

No point in asking whether they really made it into Bond Street by staging a pavement hunger strike; nor why the Barker family took them in for four years and settled their drinks bill of pounds 1,249 14s 6d. This is not biography: it is legend - the legend of Bohemia. Also, in Lindsay Posner's gloriously cast production, it is violently funny. David O'Hara and Ken Stott invade the metropolis like marauding Rangers supporters: the joke being that they are aesthetic hooligans whose talent takes them into places (like the Royal Court) from which their manners would otherwise exclude them. These two salvage the despised art of theatrical drinking: witness Mr Stott's repertoire of drunken walks, particularly in a pair of 'two-tone Highland brogues' (hand-carved from Colquhoun's army boots).

More than anything, the play becomes the history of a marriage. The outside world hardly exists for the lovers except as a sounding board for their fame. All the war means to MacBryde is that he has no linseed oil. 'Very nice,' he remarks, when he hears of General Sikorski's death. Stott plays him as the older partner; and, under his volcanic pugnacity, the more vulnerable. It is he who does things for Colquhoun (smuggling copies of Art News and Review over the barrack fence), and proclaims their inseparable unity. Then come the bad times, and by degrees you see them splitting apart. Byrne handles this wonderfully. There is no showdown: instead, an imperceptible piling up of incidents from which Colquhoun emerges as the chastened realist and MacBryde as a man marooned in a self-comforting dream, until they are finally isolated at opposite sides of the stage. Shades of Verlaine and Rimbaud. Colquhoun, in fact, was the first to die: but in this version both lives are finished, and what begins as a hell-raising romance ends as an epitaph for Bohemia.

Ever hopeful of making headway with Ibsen's Rosmersholm, I find myself up against the usual brick wall in Annie Castledine's production. Disregard some ominous plonkings from Miriam Karlin in the role of the housekeeper, and the acting is not at fault. Bernard Lloyd's vocally high-flying Brendel captures that spectral mountebank on the wing. Francesca Annis (picking up the water imagery) lightens the dour Rebecca West into one of Ibsen's teasing mermaids - who may bring salvation or ruin. Corin Redgrave almost persuades you of Rosmer's aristocratically commanding past despite his slow- witted present. But the part remains unplayable; and the retrospective action finally reaches the chasm between the higher syntax of the two doomed idealists, and the brute facts of incest and murder as revealed by their reactionary opponent, Dr Kroll (Allan Corduner). At least you know what he is talking about.

Among famous but little- staged 19th-century pieces, let me rather recommend Jake Lushington's English premiere of Alexander Griboedov's Wit's End, a key comedy of the 1820s which picks up from Moliere's Le Misanthrope and launched the figure of the 'superfluous man' - the intellectual nobody listens to - on the Russian stage. Supposedly untranslatable, the piece reaches New End in a version by Stephen Walshe whose title alone is a big improvement on the usual Wit Through Woe. The satirically driven plot is as biting as Gogol, and Adrian Schiller's Chatsky (the Alceste figure) fully reveals why the Soviet stage commandeered this social critic as its own.

But for its co-authorship by Michael Church, the former arts editor of this newspaper, I might have overlooked Church and Betty Tadman's The English Kiss. As it is, interest has paid off. There is some primitively incriminating characterisation in this comedy of an acrimonous group of English tourists, holed up in a Gibraltar hotel as the rock's resident cloud (whose nickname supplies the title) blots out the sun. But with the arrival of a naked and nameless boy from the sea, the static quarrels spark into forceful and unpredictable action. Irresistible to everyone, the beautiful boy (a well-cast Simon Beresford) fleeces them while promising each their heart's desire: or, as he puts it, 'a bit of excitement before you die'. This is a sexy show; and as chilling as Durrenmatt.

In Lyndon Morgans's Water Music the fable of the funfair is a metaphor for life. An ageing waffle salesman has gone on hunger strike in the Dragon's Grotto for love of a fairground tart. David Ryall (no less) plays him with masterly comic aggression which hits the mark whenever the author's conspicuous phrase-making skills come to his aid. I can discern no other merit in this over-explanatory, excruciatingly whimsical winner of the Verity Bargate Award. The Soho Theatre Company, now handsomely installed at their new address, will have to find better work than this.

'Colquhoun and MacBryde', Royal Court, 071-730 1745; 'Rosmersholm', Young Vic, 071-928 6363; 'Wit's End', New End, 071-794 0022; 'The English Kiss', Boulevard, 071-434 1238; 'Water Music', Cockpit, 071-402 5081.

(Photograph omitted)