THEATRE / Golden Gate does it again

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IBSEN AND Strindberg notwithstanding, it still prompts a giggle to refer to the 'best- loved character in Scandinavian theatre' and claim its author as the 'Danish Moliere'. So let's start at the other end with one of our own favourite characters, Christopher Sly in The Taming of the Shrew. If there are other people like me who wish Sly had not been pushed out of the way to make room for Kate and Petruchio, they can catch up with his full story in Ludwig Holberg's Jeppe of the Hill.

Holberg (1684-1754), the first person to write a play in Danish, took the subject not from Shakespeare but from a 17th-century tale by Jacob Bidermann; even so, the opening circumstances are identical. Jeppe, a bone-idle peasant with a strap-wielding wife, is found dead drunk on a dunghill by a party of slumming aristos who spirit him away to the local manor to make him lord for a day. The stories diverge when Jeppe awakens to the prospect of unlimited food and power, and climaxes his drunken breakfast by raping the bailiff's wife and sentencing everyone else to death. For this, he is hauled off for trial and put through a mock execution, before resuming his old life as a brandy-sodden liar with yet another tall tale to tell.

Put like that, the play suggests the work of a genial conservative who is glad to find fun in a character like Jeppe, so long as he finally learns to know his place. Perhaps that was Holberg's viewpoint. It is not what emerges from Ben Crocker's production, in which laughter functions as a booby-trap for the audience. Again and again you stop short in mid-guffaw when you realise what you are laughing at: the sight of a man being flogged, brainwashed, and left to say goodbye to his old horse when he thinks he is going to be hanged. Or, at the opposite end of the social scale, the sight of the playboy baron (Paul Goodwin) dreaming up this hooray prank, and then turning into a philosopher- prince who is conducting a social experiment to demonstrate the virtue of the existing hierarchy. 'Elect the common people,' he says, 'and they'll become tyrants' - leaving the object of his own tyranny to crawl off and lick his wounds.

The show follows the Gate's revival of Marivaux's Double Inconstancy as another specimen of the 18th-century nature/nurture debate. In Marivaux the peasant invader has some power on his side and receives kinder treatment. Holberg is more brutal and immeasurably funnier: thanks in part to Kenneth McLeish's translation, which has the courtiers (led by a toffee-nosed Murray Melvin) talking burlesque archaisms while Jeppe and his battle-axe wife (Deborah Manship) ad-lib away in modern English. Jonathan Coyne takes wonderful advantage of this, particularly in passages where Jeppe splits in two, peasant and lord in the same breath, or head against body as he tries to set off for work while his feet insist on taking him back to the dram-shop. Following Opera North's production of the Holberg-Nielsen Masquerade and Greenwich Studio's acclaimed Erasmus Montanus, I hope we shall be seeing more of this great Dane.

Paul Sirett was too soon off the mark with Worlds Apart (1993), a fine slashing piece on Britain's new anti-immigrant legislation. I doubt whether time will reveal such prophetic insight in its sequel, Crusade, in which a bunch of tourists are stranded on the West Bank when their Israeli van breaks down. As they include an overbearing Australian-Jewish bank president (Peter Ellis), a Muslim art historian (Tara Shaw), and other interested parties, it is not long before the seemingly miscellaneous group snap into schematic formation for a Middle-Eastern ding-dong.

This reaches its climax when two of them go into chain- mail as Richard I and Saladin, as though the postwar expulsion of the Arabs were only the continuation of an age-old conflict. But the public debate hardly registers in a piece that makes so little narrative sense. Why, for a start, does the driver set off into the desert with a nearly empty fuel tank? Simply as a way of marooning the occupants for a two-hour squabble in which the play becomes as bogged-down as the characters.

In Red Shift's latest touring show, Jonathan Holloway brings Crime and Punishment down to around two hours by the simple expedient of dropping the first part of the title. The murder consists of a preliminary pantomime in and out of the reversible magic-box doorways of David Roger's set. After which it is all punishment. This is a single-minded play about guilt, showing that self- torment exceeds anything the law can inflict. It is purposefully developed, ingeniously distributed between a cast of five, and its narrative tension is strengthened by bringing in the feline police investigator, Porfiry (excellently played by Tristan Sharps) right from the start.

Perhaps unavoidably, Holloway also presents the action from the feverish viewpoint of Raskolnikov (Philip Brook); thus slugging the spectator with an unremitting onslaught of blood-red silhouettes, dry-ice nightmares, madhouse bells and incessant shouting. The show is well conceived, but it needs to be allowed to breathe.

Wilde gets put even more thoroughly through the mangle in Lynne Parker's Rough Magic production of Lady Windermere's Fan. This is, in part, a cross-dressing show. If only it had gone the whole hog. The ball scene, with wicked Dublin drolls like Sean Kearns and Mal Whyte climbing in and out of crinolines and dinner jackets, blows the sentimental comedy to smithereens. Thereafter it proves impossible for the straightforward lead performers to pick up the pieces.

A brief but ardent welcome to John Quentin's Barnaby Drowning, a homosexual memoir of Oxford in the 1950s. This is a one-man show, part

poem, part re-enactment, performed with transfixing intelligence and emotional precision to evoke the social repressions and inner conflicts of a vanished time. Unforgettable.

'Jeppe of the Hill': Gate, W11, 071-229 0706. 'Crusade': Theatre Royal, Stratford East, 081-534 0310. 'Crime and Punishment': Battersea Arts Centre, SW11, 071- 223 2223. 'Lady Windermere's Fan': Tricycle, NW6, 071-328 1000. 'Barnaby Drowning': New End, NW3, 071-794 0022.