THEATRE / Flight from the enchanter: Paul Taylor reviews Richard Eyre's production of Sweet Bird of Youth at the National

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The Independent Culture
Some critics have chided Richard Eyre of late for putting on too many American plays at the National at the expense of English works and neglected European classics. In response, Eyre has maintained that, however much you may want to mount a play, it makes no sense if you can't find a director who also has a genuine desire to see it staged.

Certainly, Eyre's new, richly enjoyable production of Sweet Bird of Youth by the neither neglected, English nor European Tennessee Williams comes with all the justifying benefits of being a clear labour of love. If you wished to quibble about it entering the Lyttelton repertoire at this juncture, though, you could point out that its inclusion does rather offend against Eyre's idea that there should always be a wide range of tones across the board.

From some angles, Sweet Bird looks to be too much a bird of a feather with Cocteau's Les Parents Terribles, one of its Lyttelton aviary- mates. In both, overblown emotions are alternately wallowed in and camply cut down to size. In both, a young man is caught between a self- dramatising older woman and an idealised true love of his own age. Next to a lurid hothouse orchid, it could be argued, you need not another orchid but a nice shrub rose.

Frankly, though, the superb central performances in Sweet Bird would make you want to waive just about any selection-principle, even if there were not, in any case, a distinguishing political dimension in the Williams. In a manner that's heightened by Eyre's incorporation of non- Broadway draft material into the text, vicious Southern racism forms the lethal backdrop to this tale of two white and very Williamsesque wanderers who huddle together against the depredations of time and social conformity.

With a quiff like Billy Fury and the sex appeal of a young Martin Sheen, the American actor Robert Knepper is phenomenally good as Chance Wayne, the 'most beautiful boy' in St Cloud. Driven away by the racist demagogue Boss Finlay (Richard Pasco) to prevent him marrying his daughter, Chance finally returns home as the gigolo of the faded film star, Alexandra del Largo, whose curled-at- the-edges glamour, ball-breaking wit and defiance are given both a fine edge of satire and an underlying bleakness by Clare Higgins.

Whereas her film comeback has been a big success, Chance's Easter Sunday comeback to St Cloud ends in horrific castration. But in the composite text as used, it becomes clear that it was not Chance who infected Finlay's daughter with the venereal disease that caused her to be 'spayed like a dawg'. In one of many shrewd directorial touches, Eyre bathes the young woman (who is called Heavenly Finlay) in an aura of virginal radiance while she's explaining this, pointing up the contrast between Chance's expectations of love and the sordid reality of what she has suffered.

The design makes use of three sensually overlapping screens which, as well as offering us huge movie close-ups of Alexandra, can alter the size of the acting area. These eventually rise, sickeningly, to reveal Finlay's henchmen. As his fate draws near, Knepper modulates into the redemptive serenity of self- recognition. The way he meets his fate with open arms is all the more moving here because it's preceded by an undignified moment when he jumps out of his skin at the entry of a black servant offering him help.

In rep to 6 Aug, National Theatre (071-928 2252)

(Photograph omitted)