THEATRE / History and the stuff of nightmares: Paul Taylor reviews a cruel Europeans in Greenwich and Lorca's Blood Wedding in Hammersmith

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The Independent Culture
HOWARD BARKER has written that a theatre which honours its audience 'permits them to escape the nightmare of being entertained'. Watching the Wrestling School's production of his play The Europeans at Greenwich may suggest to some of the folk thus 'honoured' that being liberated from the nightmare of being entertained is no great picnic either.

Barker has further proclaimed that 'the baying of an audience in pursuit of unity is a sound of despair': for him, theatre should divide audiences and send them home disturbed or amazed. So, presumably, he will be disappointed to hear that when some friends and I ventured to reveal the disturbed / amazed state of our divided souls to each other on the journey home, we turned out to have been affected and puzzled by the piece in remarkably similar ways.

Commissioned by the RSC, which turned it down, The Europeans is set in the aftermath of the siege of Vienna in 1683. The Turkish army and the threat of Islam now repulsed, the Christian Emperor Leopold (Bill Stewart) is intent on rebuilding the culture, but it becomes clear that the national hero, Starhemberg (Nicholas Le Prevost), who saved Vienna, cannot be counted on as an ally in this work of peacetime reconstruction. Disgusted with the state, he finds himself increasingly drawn to another unsubornable survivor, Katrin (Judith Scott), raped, mutilated and made pregnant by the Turkish army. Both are determined to resist the emperor's attempts to salvage safe moral certainties or comforting symbols from the atrocities or the turmoil in an unbalanced, starving city.

'What history spoiled, let history mend,' cries the emperor, seizing the baby to which Katrin has, on her own insistence, just given birth before a crowd in a city square. 'I christen her - Concilia,' he announces triumphantly, thus appropriating her suffering for the emblematic convenience of the state. Given that it was Katrin's desperate desire to prevent this happening, you can't help feeling that to stage such a grossly public spectacle of her private rights over her pain was a somewhat paradoxical way of going about preserving them, and full of obvious risk. But then probability has never worried the author who gave us The Possibilities.

The play is subtitled 'Struggles to Love', but, except for Katrin rather belatedly, nobody struggles much to love the poor baby. At Starhemberg's adamant urging, she hands it over to an appalled Turkish officer who is threatened with death if he refuses the gift. How does the hero justify this coerced adoption morally? 'How do we escape from history?' he asks the mother. 'We reproduce its mayhem in our lives.'

There's no denying the dramatic energy of this weird, jerky piece, and Kenny Ireland's fluent, well-designed production does justice both to the solid stratum of earnestness and the zany current of mad comedy that dart around it. Nicholas Le Prevost and Philip Franks as a semi-deranged priest who kills his mother and goes round afterwards in a daze of self-rebirth ('Feel me] I'm new,' he says, offering his wrist) are both old Barker hands and expert at projecting the grimness and the barmy comedy of his world. There is a fair amount, though, that remains obstinately obscure.

The morality of The Europeans may be cruel, offensive trash but the production grips the attention. Odyssey Theatre's account of Blood Wedding at the Lyric, Hammersmith, offers the reverse experience, inserting sagging longueurs into Lorca's great tragedy of the earth.

Some of the design is good, particularly in the forest scene where the feeling of mortality is intensified by the tree trunks, represented as illuminated cascades of sand, hauntingly like hour-glasses. But the acting is undistinguished and, instead of reinforcing a sense of ritual, the singing and flamenco dancing may put you more in mind of Matador, the ill-fated musical, than Blood Wedding, the fatalistic tragedy.

The Europeans, Greenwich Theatre, SE10, 081-585 7755

Blood Wedding, Lyric, Hammersmith, W6, 081-741 2311