THEATRE / Edinburgh Festival: Mad maybe, but not nutters

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The Independent Culture
A group of hopefuls is arriving to audition for a play - eight women with experience of mental illness, and three male actors who will help them to tell their stories. The director tries to put them at their ease, and asks the most inhibited, Jackie, to do her piece. The next second the audience is cowering from an onslaught of savage shrieks and splintering wood as Jackie sets about wrecking the room. She then quietly resumes her seat, remarking that she was in complete control.

This will be a familiar paradox to spectators of Jeremy Weller's previous Grassmarket Project shows: Glad and Bad, which featured down-and-outs and young offenders re-enacting the uncontrolled violence of their daily lives. Mad, the third part of the trilogy, differs in the sense that its subjects are still functioning members of society. They have been knocked about by parents and sex partners; they have suffered anorexia, bulimia, and abortions, and undergone psychiatric confinement; but, as one of them rightly claims, 'we're not nutters'. Anyone resistant to Weller's work might describe his earlier shows as voyeuristic; but not this one - in which you learn as much about yourself as about other people.

As before, the material dictates the form, in which a first audition becomes the completed production: an idea that works marvellously because these people are capable of forming relationships. When they take the floor, the battered Viv or the maritally rejected Carolyn become prisoners of their remembered demons; then they rejoin the group as people as sane as, or saner than, you or me. What turns this into a piercing theatrical event, rather than a psychodrama session, is the fact that their re-enactment of the past forges a drama of present-tense attachments - particularly between the clinical victims and the 'normal' actors.

From the start, you feel in the presence of a group of assertive, prickly, humorous, hair-trigger personalities, who repeatedly disrupt the rehearsal and divert apparently predictable scenes to unscheduled destinations. Viv asks John to play her brutal lover; he cannot do it, so she reverses the roles and hammers him to a pulp. Dave, a garrulous young actor who exasperates the director with stories of his crazy mother, bides his time and stages an entrance wearing a frock. The girls fall about, but the giggling Clare sportingly gives him a go as her mother in what then explodes into the most painful domestic scene of the show. Sympathies, judgement, alliances are in continuous transition. Peter, an old actor whom the group comes to detest as a macho bully, abruptly widens the whole debate with unspeakable recollections of the madness of military indoctrination. 'It's in us all,' he says, summing up an event that ends with the company's assault on its professionally blinkered director. That is Weller's final self-lacerating paradox: using the theatre to release these buried voices while simultaneously scorning the exploitation of human lives in the trivial interest of theatrical entertainment.

Lightning may strike in the coming weeks, but after this searing piece, the official Edinburgh programme gives off an odour of museum theatre: admittedly, a well-endowed museum in the case of William Gaskill's revival of The Voysey Inheritance. This launches the festival's seven-play salute to Harley Granville-Barker; and, as his only work to gain a foothold in the standard repertory, it is an apt beginning, quite apart from the topical interest of its story of a financial grand seigneur filching his clients' savings. In this piece as nowhere else Granville-Barker indulged in vulgarly robust comic types, such as the boomingly domineering son who steps on all the banana skins, and his deaf mother, blissfully unaware of their existence. They are played by Peter Blythe and Gillian Martell in the funniest performances of the show.

Granville-Barker is writing in defence of honesty, sexual no less than financial. But, more tellingly than Shaw in Major Barbara, he also shows that opulent crime has glamour where drudging virtue has none. Old Voysey is short-changed on glamour in Tenniel Evans's insecure performance; but as Edward, Peter Lindford gives a superbly articulated display of mediocrity in the process of transformation: beginning as a lachrymose prig with the looks of 'a half-baked piecrust', and changing into a clear-eyed plain-dealer, no longer striking noble attitudes or delivering moral lectures, but grittily getting on with the job on behalf of a pack of greedy creditors he now despises. Their main spokesman is played by Frank Middlemass in irresistible contortions of outrage, self-pity and affection for the family that has cheated him. The women are pretty good, too.

Alongside this slap-up, touring production came rehearsed readings (a baneful novelty on the official programme) of two short Granville-Barker plays: Rococo, a strenuously under- powered inheritance farce: and Farewell to the Theatre, in which a lady actor-manager informs her amorous old legal adviser of her convoluted motives for quitting the thespian hurly- burly and retiring to an abbey to read great books. I note that this Jamesian trifle was written in 1916, the year in which the author abandoned the stage and his wife for an American heiress. Next week's productions, I hope, may do more to advance his reputation.

Sharing G-B's star-billing is the Glasgow-born C P Taylor, a prolific dramatist and pioneer of company and community-based work who seems ripe for rediscovery. But better continued neglect than last week's festive offerings. As an admirer of Taylor, from

Allergy in the 1960s to his last work, Good (1981), I recoil in dismay from the productions of Walter and The Ballachulish Beat: the first based on the last years of the Jewish-Glaswegian music-hall comedian Walter Jackson; the second a (hitherto unperformed) musical satire on the rise and fall of a Socialist rock band. Both seem clumsily structured and embalmed in their time: but given the mindless ineptitude of both productions, there is no telling whether the plays are any good or not.

As a footnote to the Hans Jurgen Syberberg film retrospective, his leading actress, Edith Clever, appeared in his production of A Dream What Else? - a monodrama set in the aftermath of the war, featuring Frau Clever as an aristocratic survivor of the carnage, somnambulistically patrolling an open grave, and consoling herself with gems of German literature. It is 35 minutes before she speaks. When she does she makes Kleist sound beautiful. Would she had had the chance to act as well.

'Mad', Leith Theatre, Grassmarket Project (031-558 3581); 'The Voysey Inheritance', Lyceum (031-229 9697); 'Walter', St Bride's Centre (031-337 6331); 'The Ballachulish Beat', Corn Exchange. Edinburgh Festival ticket office (031-225 5756).