THEATRE / Edward Albee: a revenger's tragedy

Tall Women - Wyndhams; Dream - 6th-Form College, Barrow-in-Furness; Pea ches - Royal Court Upstairs
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IF HAROLD PINTER were to boost a revival of The Caretaker with the announcement that it was based on the life of his Uncle Wilf, it would hardly come as more of a shock than Edward Albee's true confessions in the case of Three Tall Women. This piece, famously, has won Albee a Pulitzer Prize and returned him to critical favour after 25 years in the cold. Would it have done so, I wonder, if Albee had maintained his usual invincible reserve over his source material (give or take acknowledgments to Samuel Beckett and the occasional Brandenburg Concerto), instead of identifying its subject as the adoptive mother who darkened his childhood and threw him out of the house at the age of 18?

If that sounds malicious, I can only say that it springs from sheer bafflement at the success of what strikes me as a mean and technically lazy piece of work. Albee has described it as ``a kind of exorcism'', written in a spirit of objective enquiry rather than revenge. But from the portrait that emerges - first a gloating study of the physical indignities of extreme old age, followed by a charge-sheet of the moneyed arrogance, sexual betrayals and family feuding that led up to it - it is hard to see what further wounds revenge could have inflicted.

Structurally, the play seeks to impale its protagonist from two angles. In a naturalistic first act, she appears as a nonagenarian invalid, revolving in an infernal cycle of tears, rage, emergency trips to the lavatory, and bitter yearning for the absent young Albee. She is attended by a wise-cracking secretary-companion (extremely well played by Frances de la Tour), and a young lawyer (Anastasia Hille) who is there simply to register appropriate outrage at the old woman's references to wops and uppity nigras. Apart from the question of how much all this is costing in legal fees, there is no forward drive. Dramatic interest centres wholly on Maggie Smith as the old monster; not so much for her display of the breakneck transitions of a collapsing mind (amazing as these are) but for her success in conveying some human substance behind the mask of senility.

Albee then lays her low with a stroke and proceeds to a non-naturalistic second act in which the three actors reassemble as the protagonist's separate selves in youth, middle, and old age. The dramatic possibilities of this device have been wonderfully explored by Michel Tremblay in Albertine in Five Times, which achieved a purposeful narrative and composite portraiture through a five-part division of the self, each with its own story to tell. Albee's tall women have only one story: namely that youthful hope began its slide into lies and despair with the experience of revulsion against oral sex. All the rest of the play has to offer is the voice of experience telling youth that the bad times are coming. Through no fault of Anthony Page's cast, at no point do you see how one self grows into the next. Let's hope Albee has managed to lay his ghost; he has not created a character.

The second American folly of the week, Peter Sellars' production of The Merchant of Venice passed through the Barbican as a lunatic coda to the Everybody's Shakespeare festival. Reset in Los Angeles on a stage fetishistically garlanded with TV cables and monitor screens, the show featured a black Shylock (played with Robesonesque weight by Paul Butler) and sought to draw a parallel between anti-Semitism and Californian race riots. As the rest of the company (from Chicago's Goodman Theatre) consisted of Latinos and Chinese Americans, the scheme never stood a chance of making sense, even if the actors had been capable of speaking the text. From the sight of Bassanio and Antonio hotly embracing during the trial, to Portia's speech on candle-beams, obliterated by her car's headlights, you sat through the show's four hours confident that every detail was going to be wrong. What alarms me is that somebody chose this for London.

Dean Clough, Halifax, is officially listed as an industrial park, but with its galleries, restaurants, enterprise campus, and Henry Moore Studio, it is more a city inside a city. All it lacked was a theatre; and that lack has now been made good with a 280-seat underground venue - the Viaduct Theatre - launched by the Northern Broadsides company with Barrie Rutter's touring production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

With its Victorian brickwork and tunnel exits, the Viaduct is a fine addition to Rutter's chosen circuit of ``non-velvet spaces''; and this lovely show conjures magic from a defiantly unethereal environment. A carpet is laid for the forest, and the immortals arrive as beribboned morris men, for whom the rusting girders become trees, a workshop trolley Titania's bower, and who finally signal the triumph of Hymen with a fairy pas de deux that takes clog-dancing to the boundary of flamenco. In that sense they are directly related to the mechanicals who open the show with rhythmic hammering that asserts the dignity of their craft. Fairies and artisans alike are creatures of the earth.

Rutter himself, automatic casting for Bottom, leaves that role to the excellent John Branwell and doubles masterfully as Theseus and Oberon in a challenging partnership with Ishia Bennison's fiery Hippolyta / Titania. Come the play scene, and - as happens when the magic really strikes - class divisions dissolve into a vision of social harmony as the lordly spectators and humble performers invade each others' space. Next week Barrow-in-Furness, then the Richmond Theatre.

In Peaches, we follow Frank and his student friends from Leeds to London on a non-stop gossiping jag. Whatever they are talking about, they are thinking about sex; but whenever it comes to the point, Frank (the irresistible Ben Chaplin) either blows his chances or can't make up his mind. Absolutely nothing happens, and to hilariously truthful effect. A notable debut for a new writer, Nick Grosso.

'Tall Women': Wyndhams, 071-369 1736. `Dream': 6th-Form College, Barrow-in-Furness, 0229 820000. `Peaches', Royal Court Upstairs, 071-730 1745.

(Photograph omitted)