THEATRE / Honour and thieves: Paul Taylor reviews Sam Walters' production of His Majesty at St Bride's Centre, Edinburgh

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The Independent Culture
TWO NEW medical conditions have been identified at this year's Edinburgh Festival - the Taylor Tummy and the Barker Bum. The first makes itself felt as a despondent downward lurch of the stomach and strikes sufferers whenever they are faced with the prospect of having to sit through yet another dated, structurally undisciplined Seventies play with a heart of pure gold, a few good lines, a snatch of John Lennon singing 'Revolution' and a prominent part for a Glaswegian Jew.

The second is a slightly trickier customer. Its symptoms are a fidgety ache in the backside that makes continued contact with a theatre seat feel like a generous foretaste of purgatory. The ailment is named after Harley Granville Barker - which is not entirely fair, in fact, for it is only known to attack when the sufferer is confronted by one of the playwright's later works. As these are all theatrical rarities, the Bum (as we will call it for short) is not a common condition.

It was raging in this reviewer, though, on Wednesday night at the world premiere of His Majesty, Barker's 14th and final play, completed in 1927. An Orange Tree production, it is directed in his customary in-the-round style by Sam Walters, who seems to have cornered the market in belated Barker premieres, having launched The Secret Life on its maiden voyage back at his Richmond base four years ago.

The best of Barker's work offers a degree of intellectual stimulation not often encountered in the theatre, but what principally exercises your mind, watching this piece, is how the same man who wrote The Voysey Inheritance, The Madras House and Waste could bring himself to perpetrate its arid tortuosities and two-dimensional tosherie.

The play follows the fortunes of the King and Queen of Carpathia, who are in exile following a bloody revolution. Spurred on by his fanatical wife, the King decides he must return home to prevent his people from falling into further civil strife. But his secret attempts to reach some agreement with the present regime are complicated by the news that one of his hot- headed supporters is leading an army bent on capturing the chief minister. This confronts the King with the first in a contrived succession of dilemmas.

One lesson the evening teaches is that instinctive honour and magnanimity, though a credit to a man, are dubious virtues in a theatrical hero. Predictability is a play-pooper and the King's automatically ramrod-backed reactions to events - offering to abdicate at once when some of his army break the armistice; refusing to be a puppet-king for a minister who has stooped to murder - keep short-circuiting the drama. In fact, magnanimity can only propel a play if it is used mischievously by someone who is two steps ahead of the game as a way of stymieing the opposition.

The hero of His Majesty has no such cunning or initiative, though he is lent an attractive humour and wistfulness - crossed at times by a touch of the head-prefect - in Sam Dastor's fine performance. Not all the acting is so adroit, alas, in this incisively staged production. One character, a colonel who has been reduced by the revolution to the role of humble caretaker, seems to have decided here to go the whole hog and reinvent himself as a stooped, bow-legged Chekhovian peasant.

There are feeble Shakespearean echoes (Richard II's prevarications; Falstaff's honour speech), miles and miles of plot, but no rich subtext, and no real life until the final touching and absurd minutes, with the King and Queen ensconced in a train that is whisking them off to exile in Bermuda. It's at this point you would have liked the play to begin.

His Majesty is at the St Bride's Centre, Edinburgh, today and tomorrow (Booking: 031-225 5756).

(Photograph omitted)