Theatre: Foe; West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

Silence is powerful, especially on the stage, as Theatre de Complicite' s reworking of the Robinson Crusoe tale points up. By Paul Taylor
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The Independent Culture
As is shown by the mute and mutilated form of Lavinia in Titus Andronicus, silence tends to be more eloquent on the stage than on the page. The palpable presence of stage silence - its capacity to transmit a sense of enigma, threat - is of great advantage to Theatre de Complicite in their new adaptation of JM Coetzee's novel Foe. The book is the kind of scrupulous, searching counter-fiction to Robinson Crusoe that you might expect from a liberal white South African. In his version of the myth, Friday is not the chatty noble savage of Defoe's imagining, but a slave whose tongue has been severed (possibly by Crusoe) and a central brooding question mark, here embodied in a powerful, dignified performance from Patrice Naiambana.

With studied avoidance of sentimentality, Coetzee inserts a woman into the story of the island; indeed, he writes the novel in her voice. Once back in England with the traumatised Friday in tow, Kathryn Hunter's searingly expressive Susan Barton tries to sell that tale in order to secure the money that will liberate them both. In her communications by letter with her ghost writer, Foe, she becomes Coetzee's means of exploring such topics as the moral ownership and distortion of stories. Rob Pickavance's bewigged Foe is more interested in Susan's adventures before the island, serching for her daughter. Her willed silence on these matters is contrasted with the involuntary silence of the mutilated Friday.

Complicite have never been afraid of trying to make theatrical poetry out of improbably stageable prose, and with Bruno Schulz and John Berger they succeeded. Here, though - despite an intelligent adaptation by Mark Wheatley and a grimly committed production by Annie Castledine and Marcello Magni - the material is so preoccupied with questions of textuality and so top heavy with text that it puts frustrating restraints on the exuberant physical imagination for which the company is famous. The show is successful at conveying the tricky tensions between the trio on the island (a barren, gully-scored block of baked earth washed by aural waves that rush towards you on the soundtrack with the painful exhilaration of an express train), but it does not solve the problem of presenting in clear stage pictures the symbolic relationship of the participants in the London scenes.

At the start of that second half, manuscript pages flutter from the sky and Foe's desk and chair, each with gigantic legs, dominate the view. The book, which takes the form of a memoir and letters, keeps insisting on its writtenness and, indeed, eventually establishes writing as the way Friday may find relief.

But it's hard to bring a letter writer and her correspondent into dynamic interaction and Foe's shifting dramatic status is not given a sharp enough focus. I'm ashamed to say that the bits I liked best were the ones of pure sensuous immediacy; for example, the moment, simple to achieve perhaps but magical, when Susan, demented by the noise of the wind, dips her head into a pool of water and all the sound suddenly switches off, creating, in a work preoccupied by silence, silence of dizzying intensity.

To 30 March. Booking: 0113-244 2111

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