THEATRE / Entrances and exits: Paul Taylor on the British premiere of Botho Strauss's Seven Doors at the Gate, Notting Hill

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The Independent Culture
Strange how many things come in batches of seven - dwarves, samurai, brides for brothers, to say nothing of juvenile sleuths or deadly sins. Now, thanks to the contemporary German dramatist Botho Strauss, we have to add doors to this catalogue. And there they loom - on Roswitha Gerlitz's striking set for this British premiere at the Gate - free-standing, haphazardly tilted, looking more like a jumble of jagged teeth than a set of thresholds and all of them easily detachable from their frames. They are not, however, nearly as unhinged as the people who pass through them.

Quite why, though, there is this heavy emphasis on doors remains a bit of a mystery, for the drama doesn't go out of its way to exploit their symbolic potential. But then, complete accessibility has never been top of Strauss's list of priorities, as was revealed by David Fielding's fine production at the Glasgow Citizens this May of an earlier play, The Hypochondriacs. Concerning a woman who gradually discovers that all her actions and feelings have been prompted and monitored by a string-pulling secret admirer, this was a potentially intriguing, mad metaphysical farce. But it had such a cranky overload of layers of illusion and so little strong, propelling logic that audience curiosity kept giving way to baffled irritation.

David Farr's account of Seven Doors likewise leaves you with more admiration for the acting and the direction than for the content. With much trebling of roles, his cast hits just the right note of barmy self-preoccupation, projecting emotions with a half-real, half-spoofed intensity that's appropriate in the Strauss world where everyone is horribly conscious that they are playing games with one another. Unfolding in abrupt, weird fragments, the piece purports to be a dark satire on contemporary mores. Its hero, Horst Tietze (Brian Lipson), has just been humiliated by coming second in a daytime TV quiz show and the play presents us with the gallery of guilt-ridden neurotics and misfits he encounters in his search for some rescuing angel.

Not that the social relations the play scrutinises are confined to this world; indeed, the funniest vignette presents the initial encounter between an ashen-faced, blood-spattered suicide (played by the wonderful Boyd Clack) and the Void (Barry Wallman) he has sought. Clack, who looks like Oscar Wilde interbred with a giant barn-owl, is hilariously dismayed by his grey, boring, clingy new companion. It is as though he has answered a lonely hearts ad, has drawn someone wildly unsuitable and is stuck with the result for eternity. Hell, in other words.

The trouble with some of the more earth-bound sketches is that thin material is overstretched to the point where it is hard to tell what is being attacked. There is a droll look at the drawbacks of romantic love, whose rapt exclusivity begins to look altogether less desirable to a couple of newly-weds (Dickon Tyrrell and Gabrielle Dellai) when they realise they have got so out of touch with the rest of the world that not a soul has turned up to their wedding. But, even in the better fragments, there is too much facetiousness and obscurity and the dream-logic of the piece too often seems like a charter for self-indulgence. 'I feel I've been taken for a ride by Eternity,' complains the suicide in the drama's best line. There are times when you feel you've been taken for a ride by Botho Strauss.

Seven Doors continues at the Gate Theatre, 11 Pembridge Road, London W11 (Box office: 071- 229 0706).

(Photograph omitted)

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