Theatre: La Dolce Vita Lyric Hammersmith

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The Independent Culture
One of the many ways in which you can distinguish an artist from a mere showman or a prestidigitator or a dauber is that the artist truly loves the world of which he despairs. Federico Fellini was such an artist. His seminal movie, La Dolce Vita, a huge international success as well as the cause of heated debate when first released 30 years ago, can never be dismissed as anything so crass as an expose of metropolitan decadence because its hero's picaresque progress through the cafe society of Rome is underpinned by such tender tristesse. The artist does nothing so bald as to editorialise. He comes at it obliquely, yet he burrows deep.

Between Fellini's ambiguous short-story-telling and the duality and depravity of an equally astounding movie of the same year, Hitchcock's Psycho, the main themes of modernist film-making were laid out. Those themes still hold good. So La Dolce Vita's position is secure, its mastery beyond debate. It needs no protection from the likes of me and so I came to the David Glass Ensemble's stage rendering with an open mind, believing that material transliterated from one form to another may be judged on its own terms, not by the honour or lack of honour it pays to its source.

Almost the first thing that happens on stage is that a young man in brown leather jacket and white chinos runs on and cries, "Hi, I'm Paparazzo and I'm an arsehole." Around him the rest of the company variously strides about and lolls. You know they're cool because they wear black and shades.

It isn't often in the theatre that one's heart hits the floor in the first 90 seconds, but when it does you know you're in for a long haul. Glass cleaves remarkably, even doggedly, to the shape and detail of the movie so that you constantly wish he would take a leap of his own. And such fidelity invites unavoidable comparison as it becomes clear that, aside from the movie's indelible opening image of a statue of Christ being flown over the city, Glass is not about to admit defeat in trying to recreate Felliniland.

Drawing on Nino Rota's music does not clinch it, however. Telling us what to think - the lyric "We are the lost souls passing like fashion" is thought so pertinent that it is lovingly quoted in the programme - is no substitute for the harder and more worthwhile work of finding true theatrical metaphors for Fellini's delicate, passionate ambivalence.

n To 27 April. Booking: 0181-741 2311