Theatre: It's the flux that's the thing

The Street of Crocodiles Queen's Theatre, W1 Lord of the Flies Lyric Hammersmith, W6 Measure for Measure Barbican, EC2
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
John Updike described Bruno Schulz as "one of the great transmogrifiers of the world". No theatre company is better suited to having a go at magical transformation than Theatre de Complicite. Fifty years after Bruno Schulz's death, Simon McBurney and Mark Wheatley adapted Schulz's stories for The Street of Crocodiles, which opened at the National in 1992 and toured everywhere, from Australia to Iceland to Lithuania, picking up awards en route. It now brings transmogrification to a place where it's badly needed: the West End.

Schulz was shot by a Nazi officer in 1942. He had taught art in a secondary school for boys at Drohobycz, in south-eastern Poland, and written Cinnamon Shops and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. Complicite have drawn on both his life and the stories. Schulz's last job was to catalogue books for the Nazis. In the opening scene we see Joseph (Cesar Sarachu) in a dank warehouse inspecting books and listening to the approach of marching steps.

In a coup de theatre, we see Joseph seated downstage opening a book, while another actor literally walks down the back wall of the theatre, as if it were a street. We visit the boisterous schoolroom, where he vainly tries to establish discipline while teaching woodwork, the drapery shop where his father rolls out cloth, the family dinner table, and the attic, where his father kept an aviary. The classroom desks shift into endless combinations as, in these scenes of provincial Poland, McBurney and his company conjure up a hallucinatory and multi-layered picture of boredom, loneliness and sexual longing.

It isn't always easy to follow. "Matter is in a state of constant fermentation," says the father, played with inspired eccentricity and sober dignity by Matthew Scurfield, "it never holds the same shape for very long". This fluidity lies at the heart of the piece, which draws its energy from the swift and ingenious visual transitions, as books turn into fluttering birds or the cast transform themselves in to passengers in a railway carriage. The company can move as one. Or each of the characters can be sharply realised with a feverish colour. As Uncle Charles, Clive Mendus has a lovely light-footed pomposity, drawing a parallel between "Alexander the Great and my modest self". Bronagh Gallagher brings a vibrant sensuality to the assertive maid Adela. And Cesar Sarachu is superb as the central figure, Joseph. His wonderfully angular face registers each shift in mood with Prufrockian bewilderment.

The Street of Crocodiles is painstakingly wrought, magically lit (by Paule Constable) and deftly staged. If it has a single failing, then this is it. The unrelenting expertise on display makes this tour de force, for all its inventiveness, a work we admire from a distance, and with detachment.

The night I saw Nigel Williams's stage adaptation of Lord of the Flies, the audience was almost entirely made up of teenage girls. You might think they wouldn't be very interested in a story that's exclusively about boys. Or you might think they wouldn't be very interested in anything else. Either way, they were certainly interested in passing exams. Golding is a set text.

In Williams's brisk and effective adaptation (which runs two hours, with an interval) we speed through the novel, ticking off major scenes like tourists on a package holiday. The passage of time may be hard to catch, but this adaptation is a perfect accompaniment to studying the book. The central themes emerge starkly.

A plane crashes on an island, and only the boys survive as the adults have unwisely sat up at the front. "This isn't kids stuff," says Ralph (Jonah Russell), as they settle down to discuss leadership, "this is serious". It's just as well Ralph makes this clear as none of the actors look like kids. But then the island doesn't look like an island either. Thankfully, in Marcus Romer's pugnacious production, there are no picture-postcard images of sandy beaches, golden sunsets or palm trees. The slatted backdrop to the island, which ripples with cold reflected light, suggests an abattoir.

In this cruel industrial atmosphere the battered hulk of the plane serves as a climbing frame and one wing of plane moves up and down like a see- saw. A constant pulsating soundtrack, automaton dance routines and flashing lights give this production a techno energy without overdoing the sense of here and now. Only when Jack laboriously cuts off the head of the pig (to gleeful groans from the audience) does dull literalism intrude.

After the crash, the changes in costume mark the boys' descent into savagery: caps give ways to berets, ties become headbands, and blazers are replaced with war paint across the chest. The cast bring plenty of attack to these roles, skilfully marking out their individual characters, while giving a strong sense of a group that splinters into two.

This is an impressive touring production from the Pilot Theatre Company, which backs up its production with its own educational CD-Rom (stuck to the cover of the programme), a website, and an e-mail address. And that's something the Royal National Theatre hasn't got round to yet.

Michael Boyd's Measure for Measure, which has moved to the Barbican from Stratford, opens with Robert Glenister's anguished Duke doing a bunk and leaving his opening speech as a message to be played on an old phonograph. It's a turn-of-the-century equivalent to "Your mission, Jim, if you choose to accept it, is to clean up the streets of Vienna." Disappointingly, the phonograph doesn't self-destruct in five seconds.

Boyd's production scores most when it ditches this persistent vein of tricksiness and allows the cast to pinpoint the powerful shifts in thought. This they do well. Stephen Boxer anchors the evening with a chilly and intelligent Angelo. Adrian Schiller is a sharp and dissolute Lucio and Jimmy Chisholm a camp Pompey. Vienna itself remains a blank. Tom Piper's designs of a high staircase and bleached panelling offer little distinction between council chamber, brothel and prison.

`Crocodiles': Queen's, W1 (0171 494 5040), to 6 February; `Flies': Lyric, W6 (0181 741 2311), to 6 February; `Measure for Measure': Barbican, EC2 (0171 638 8891), in rep to 11 March.