THEATRE / Land of make believe: Jeffrey Wainwright on The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol, the inaugural production at Manchester's Dancehouse

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The Independent Culture
The working peasants John Berger describes in the stories of Pig Earth and Once in Europa live in what he calls a 'culture of survival'. Lucie Cabrol, from the longest story in Pig Earth, expects and seeks nothing but to survive in the place she was born and live the life she was born to. A tiny, eldritch figure, superstitiously nicknamed the Cocadrille, a creature that can defend itself and kill anything with its eye, she survives through three lives.

In her first life she survives the labour of Alpine subsistence, her brothers' enmity, the wash of two world wars and the loss of her lover Jean to the Americas, and thus to the swelling, modern power of the antithetical 'culture of progress'. In the second, her solitary middle-age, she improvises a successful business trading with the towns and smuggling goods back and forth across the frontier. When Jean returns she is ready once more to marry him. His own intervening 40 years he can condense into a paragraph. Against her tenacious rootedness, he feels he has wasted his life, and looking into 'her wrinkled cider-apple face', he hates her for it. In her third life she draws Jean into the world of the dead in a dream, or a haunting, where they will marry and build their home.

In some ways it seems surprising that director Simon McBurney and the Theatre de Complicite company should work from a John Berger text. The lapidary, austere style that Berger has quarried out to transfix his readers' attention seems distant from the manifest and winning ingenuity of Complicite's theatre. On the other hand, their different approaches to elemental story-telling may be seen to be complementary.

Complicite relish theatrical make-believe as children do. Here, they can pretend to be a horse or a pig or a line of cows stirring in a barn. They can shoulder kitchen chairs for rucksacks and scale mountains, puffing and straining. They can form up and march off to war singing. They can be trees, or bushes laden with fruit for one of them to pick. They can write on imaginary blackboards and use a stick for a scythe. More delicately they can be represented simply by their boots. Being gently relieved of one of their garments means they are dead.

This is all very practical for it enables the adaptation to move lightly across the setting and accommodate the abrupt blinks of Berger's narrative. But it is also the kind of gloriously obvious fictionality of traditional story-telling, and part of what Berger calls a 'non-antagonistic relation between the unknown and knowing' in which the peasant can include superstition and magic.

Complicite always describe their work as being in progress, and this show will doubtless evolve in the coming weeks. Changes might include a quickened pulse through the first half and less of the slow-motion movement that borders on affectation. But Lilo Baur as Lucie - as durable as an acorn, as adhesive as a burr - and Simon McBurney as Jean, are already leading a fluent and distinctive company. It is exactly the kind of stimulation to begin Manchester's year as City of Drama, and to inaugurate the city's new venue, the Dancehouse.

'The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol' at the Dancehouse, Manchester until 15 Jan; 7.30pm, matinee Saturday 2.30 (Box office: 061-242 2555)

The production then tours to Oxford, Winchester, Brighton, Stratford-upon-Avon, Darlington. It is at the Riverside, Hammersmith, London from 28 Feb