THEATRE / In fishy circumstances: Jeffrey Wainwright on Brecht's Man Equals Man

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Poor Bert Brecht. Apparently just the final assembly of 20lb of paper into the manuscript of Man Equals Man in 1925 took him '2 days, 1/2 bottle brandy, 4 bottles of soda water, 8-10 cigars and a lot of patience . . .' Nor was that it, for the play went through various subsequent re-workings. Given its history, it is strange that Man Equals Man should ever be seen to have a definitive version, and a pity too, for the marks of its construction are apparent enough to invite the contribution of some fellow labourers now. I don't know if director Richard Gregory could have cut the text, but his new Contact production, staged in association with the Manchester Goethe Institut, amply reveals the strengths and weaknesses of the accepted version.

The storyline is essentially simple. It is, as the hero Galy Gay puts it, that he 'set out to buy a small fish one morning, had acquired a large elephant by that evening and was shot in the course of the same night'. To fill in between these comic non-sequiturs: the setting is British India and Galy Gay a porter of Irish extraction who does indeed set out one day to buy a fish. He falls in with an army machine-gun company who have lost their drunken fourth man while looting a temple. They con Galy Gay into impersonating the missing man, giving him his paybook - the only important mark of identity.

The circumstances and the style of the narrative are brilliantly established here. Galy Gay and his wife first appear in bleached black-and-white film on a large screen, a device which is maintained to provide a metaphor for Galy Gay's travails as we see, between the later scenes, snippets of his lonely wanderings across an empty landscape. The soldiers, hollow-eyed redcoats led by Julian Bleach's sinister ruffian Uriah Shelley, make a sparky entrance on their bicycles. But this first half becomes slow, as the play seems to cast about for its thematic line.

In the second half, however, both play and production double in interest. Here, as its Prologue says, we are to see 'a man reassembled like a car'. Not content with his temporary impersonation of their fourth man, the soldiers contrive a delusion in which Galy Gay acquires and illegally sells a pantomime elephant, is court-martialled, and then convinced he has been executed. His components are all the same, but now Galy Gay has entirely lost what he thought was his own identity and become who the paybook says he is. One man equals another.

Here is the fascinating crux of the play. Brecht's familiar modernist debunking of the notion of individual personality is triumphantly exemplified. But his sardonic relish of subjection is cut by the realisation that this dehumanisation is exactly what totalitarianism - here a colonial army - requires. The genial Galy Gay, out to buy a fish, becomes 'a fighting machine' in the march on Tibet.

Brecht's dramatisation of these ideas is luminous. Full credit should go to Brian Parr, who is superb as Galy Gay's identity dissolves. As the play intends, we leave the theatre thinking: does 'Galy Gay' still exist? Rationally-speaking, no, but there's something about that fish . . .

At Contact Theatre, Manchester until 27 Feb (061-274 4400)