THEATRE / Faith, hope and clarity

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The Independent Culture
GOOD NEWS for fans of Tony Kushner's Angels in America, which ended with an Aids victim, Prior, being abandoned by his lover, and getting the full works in terms of angelic visitation and a blast on the last trumpet. Now comes the sequel, Perestroika, in which Prior (Stephen Dillane) lives on for another three hours and 40 minutes to turn the tables on the faithless Louis, ascend to a San Francisco-like heaven for further angelic encounters, and wind up, shaky but undefeated in a Manhattan square proclaiming that he and his companions 'will be citizens in the time to come'.

Kushner's 'Gay Fantasia on National Themes' ends on an undisguised note of cheerleading uplift. It sounds sincere; but after so many false climaxes of noble-sounding rhetoric, denunciation and pathos, all punctured by mocking giggles, you can't help wondering whether the concluding tableau is about to vanish down yet another trapdoor. I am not complaining. Kushner is at his best as a malicious tease; and one could have done with more in that vein in the early scenes which leave you wondering whether he has anything worth adding to the first play. Fortunately for new spectators that piece, under its new title, Millenium Approaches, has been revived, excellently recast (the irreplaceable Joseph Mydell survives from the original company).

Perestroika is not a self-contained work; it is a direct narrative sequel, carrying on the interwoven stories of the Aids- stricken power broker, Roy Cohn, his Mormon protege, Joe, and their assorted sexual partners. And beyond the question of whether Joe (Daniel Craig) will get it together with Louis (Jason Isaacs), and whether his Mormon mother will manage to straighten out her flaky daughter-in-law, nothing much seems to be at stake. What catapults the action back into life is the divine intervention that raises Prior from his sickbed to fulfil a new role as a prophet of justice in a world of crooked lawyers.

Through all the episodes of betrayal, abandonment and retribution in their Jewish and Mormon variants, the persisting attack is against homosexuals like the extreme right-wing thug Cohn or the would-be straight Joe, who are fouling their own nest. There have been other plays about bad faith. What lifts this into a domain of its own is Kushner's extraordinary capacity to intercut parallel narratives and launch fantasy into independent existence. Not only with the winged visitor, simultaneously angel and drag queen; but in acts of mutual imagination where characters wander into each others' dreams, and figures like the spectral Ethel Rosenberg (a spine-chilling Susan Engel), who haunts the bedside of the dying Cohn, her old enemy, and lingers on to pronounce the Kaddish over his corpse. As fearsomely played by David Schofield, this scene takes you on a rollercoaster from pathos to a savagely vindictive death rattle; typically, he then returns in black velvet as a demon king to enjoy posthumous congress with his protege.

Once again Kushner is lucky in his director. In other hands this could appear an overwritten text on a minority subject. Declan Donnellan's production, played on a black- tiled platform with only essential props (design by Nick Ormerod), disciplines its sprawling episodes to stylistic unity, with an athletically protean company doubling as the stage crew, and thunderous transitions from the streets of Brooklyn to the baroque heavens. The writing has its soft spots; the production is armour-plated and irresistible.

In Caradog Prichard's Full Moon, angels (kitted out with articulated wings and jodhpurs) mingle with the farmers, quarrymen and preachers of this North Wales community as though 'a lot of friendly ghosts had come out of the woods and were walking through the people'. Prichard, three times winner of the bardic crown at the Royal National Eisteddfod, before becoming a sub-editor on the Daily Telegraph, published this Welsh-language novel in 1961 after the death of his mother in a mental hospital. The book has been compared to Under Milk Wood; but to judge from the stage version by Helena Kaut-Howson and John Owen, it is not a work for tourists. As presented from the double viewpoint of young Caradog and his middle-aged alter ego, there is nothing picturesque in these glimpses of children's games and communal ceremonies that make up the harsh vitality of Bethesda during the First World War.

But its impact is magical from the first entrance of the seedy hero (Jon Strickland), who lays his raincoat beside a mountain pool and then speaks as a goddess: 'Eternal is my desire, unendingly am I with child.' From that moment, bardic myth and domestic reality are fused in Caradog's retracing of the years in which everything of value was taken away from him. The show has a haunting score by Richard Blackford; and it is wonderfully set by Sophie Jump on a slate traverse bounded by the death pool and a double wardrobe door that springs a sequence

of electrifying surprises, from the hungry boy's vision of

feasts to the blood-red apparition of his insane mother. Six actors bring the village into teeming, individualised focus; and an inward-looking Welsh work expands into an act of European stagecraft. A landmark production.

Even by the depressed standards of today's universities, the hero of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus gets a raw deal in Philip Franks's production. As designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis, his Wittenberg digs consist of an unfurnished, unheated room in a condemned property, where the eminent doctor returns as a penniless student to wolf cornflakes from the rusting fridge. It ought not to work; but thanks to Jonathan Cullen's darkly impassioned performance it works brilliantly. The traditional Faustus is sated with achievement. Cullen plays him as a hungry outsider, with the result that the feeble practical joker and the soul hurtling to perdition come into shared focus; and the fable of a philosopher's downfall becomes a drug culture metaphor.

You can look at the show either as a drug trip (Faustus injects the Duchess of Vanholt when she asks for grapes) or as a demystification of the force of evil. Hugh Ross's Mephistophilis materialises like a bank manager extending a generous spiritual overdraft; and then cheats on the deal. The Seven Sins come tumbling out of the fireplace and the fridge; Helen unwinds from under a tablecloth. Faustus imagines himself in Rome, but never sets foot outside his squalid den. The powers of darkness get him on the cheap. And Franks, by introducing a rational basis for the play's superstition, redoubles its threat of hell-fire.

In One Man Steven Berkoff compresses his performance career into two hours: beginning with Poe's 'Tell-Tale Heart' which is so overloaded with mimetic tricks as to sink the narrative; and leading on to two tightly structured original pieces which show this gothic pantomime technician developing into a master comedian. Berkoff always was unique; and if there is anything funnier in London than his love-hate duet between a rottweiler and its skinhead owner, I should like to be told.

'Perestroika', Cottesloe, 071-928 2252. 'Full Moon', Theatr Clwyd, 0352 755114. 'Doctor Faustus', Greenwich, 081-858 7755. 'One Man', Garrick, 071- 494 5040.

(Photograph omitted)