THEATRE / High culture sits on its morals

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WHEN POLITICIANS befriend the arts it is wonderful to see how obstacles melt away. Witness the European Arts Festival - a six-month event celebrating Britain's presidency of the European Community - launched last week with the return of Ariane Mnouchkine's Theatre du Soleil after 21 years. In the late Eighties Mnouchkine's grant was slashed and her company had to disband to pay their debts. But now they are politically useful again and, with the wave of a wand, a special venue is created in a Yorkshire woollen mill corresponding to their Paris base and including a bar, bookstall, and restaurant area clad in dry-stone walling, all in honour of her flagship production of Les Atrides which closes on Wednesday after eight performances. To what Babylonian heights might Robin Mills have arisen had the company been playing there for a fortnight.

Recounting the story of the House of Atreus, Les Atrides comprises Euripides's Iphigenia at Aulis and Aeschylus's Oresteia. I saw only the opening play, but - with still vivid memories of 1789 at the Roundhouse - it made me feel like Rip Van Winkle. Twenty years of evolution separate the two events; and while the company retains its theatre populaire trademark of festivity and avoidance of personal psychology, it is otherwise unrecognisable. In its early days, it had something urgent to say. Now, judging from the first part of the Atrean cycle, it is offering a high cultural experience: an epic narrative whose superbly integrated elements do not include what Don Taylor well described as 'the biggest demolition job on the Homeric heroes before Shakespeare put them to the sword in Troilus and Cressida'.

The starting image, at once austere and prodigal, consists of a massive timber corral with two sets of upstage doors, flanked by a musicians' platform stocked with some 150 instruments (for three quick-change players). Music, as atmospheric commentary or dance accompaniment, underscores the whole show, heavily percussive and ending with the howling of the dogs of retribution. However this may obscure the text, it is integral to a production that exists entirely within a spectrum of dance conventions, from the jubilantly bounding chorus, lightweight skirts whirling over heavy trousers, to the splay-footed, rolling gait of the principals. The movement vocabulary is South-East Asian, and predominantly Indian - above all in the exquisite circling dance of Nirupama Nityanandan's Iphigenia, whose every bodily turn is carried through to the tips of her coiling fingers. It is theatrical magic when, at the approach of death, she joins the raptly smiling chorus and the styles converge.

Make-up is also Indian, substituting enamelled facial painting for the tragic mask; and to such transforming effect that you read with disbelief that the gutteral, slight-figured Agamemnon and the falsetto, hawk-like Achilles are played by the same actor (Simon Abkarian). It is only with make-up that Mnouchkine shows her hand, by presenting Clytemnestra (Juliana Carneiro da Cunha) as the one human face among the painted principals; with the result that the piece focuses on the suffering of a wronged wife at the expense of its political dimensions. In terms of multi-cultural synthesis and sheer stage-craft, this is a breath-taking event; but at the price of substituting generalised emotion for the specific moral indignation for which posterity has valued Euripides.

Copious cultural homework has also gone into Katie Mitchell's production of The Dybbuk in which the wedding guests arrive with their best clothes caked in Ukrainian mud, and every mention of the evil one prompts a fusillade of devout spittle. When it emerges from candlelight, the show unfolds extraordinary pictures of the blind and crippled joining in the festive dance, and of a dead man giving evidence in court. Solomon Anski's play depicts a world of religious Jews where the dead coexist with the living and 'no one knows who anyone else is in this life'. The achievement of this show is to present such beliefs as part of humdrum reality: as where the old nurse (Susan Engel) advises the bride on compiling a list of suitable guests from the graveyard.

Anski's plot, however, in which the bride is possessed by the spirit of a cabbalistic student, resists folk-custom treatment. It is exceptional even for these people; and requires some bold directorial attitude if it is not to collapse into mumbo-jumbo. I admired John Shrapnel as the exorcising rabbi, and Joanne Pearce, who makes spiritual possession look as believably uncomfortable as food poisoning. Otherwise grotesque imagination is clogged by cautious anthropology.

An Englishman, an Irishman, and an American were sharing the same cell. If that sounds like the start of a joke, it is fair comment on Frank McGuinness's Someone Who'll Watch Over Me: the latest proof that comedy thrives on the cruellest experience. This is the first successful English-language piece on political kidnapping; in which McGuinness proves himself one of the rare playwrights who can pursue an 'important' theme without being asphyxiated by the call of duty. To make a drama from the sight of three men chained to the wall of a windowless room where nothing ever happens sounds impossible. Theoretically we know what the captives do: they ransack their memories, fantasise, make up role-playing games - as in the absurdist theatre of long ago. McGuinness makes full use of all this obvious equipment (obvious only now he has made it work). The result could have been excruciatingly exploitative. It is deeply affecting because he respects his characters through and through - the physically disciplined American doctor (Hugh Quarshie), the snake- tongued Irish journalist (Stephen Rea), and the prim English university teacher (Alec McCowen); and it is they, not he, who create the games and repartee, shooting imaginary films, drinking each other under the invisible table, replaying the Wimbledon Ladies' Final, and reducing the audience to helpless mirth as a by-product of hanging on to their sanity.

The piece is most carefully laid out as two duets, a central trio, and a final solo: exits and entrances indicating capture, release, and death, and every change marking a different political relationship in this tiny world where mental and physical survival depend on a rigorous etiquette of captivity. Robin Lefevre's production offers a magnificent acting partnership, and the piece strikes me as the best work from Ireland since Friel's Translations.

Good news also from the Gate, which has embarked on a season of 'Plays for Europe' (Botho Strauss, Euripides, Thomas Bernhard, Lope de Vega]) with Michel Vinaver's The Television Programme: the story of two victims of unemployment who become fodder for a current affairs documentary. Television always gets it in the neck on such occasions; but Vinaver spreads the blame with the aid of a murder plot which also brings his stoical protagonist (John Muirhead) up against the arrogance of the law. Well directed by Kim Dambaek, who encodes the parallel worlds of work and unemployment with two adjoining tables, the piece is beautifully plotted and written from the heart. I only wonder how it might have developed if the hero had landed a job in television.

'Les Atrides', Robin Mills, Bradford (0800-555871); 'The Dybbuk', Pit (071- 638 8891); 'Someone Who'll Watch Over Me', Hampstead (071-722 9301); 'Television Programme', Gate (071-229 0706).