Theatre: Lauren Bacall pays a fleeting Visit

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The Independent Culture
AMERICAN film stars who come here to work with UK casts do themselves a favour when they choose the role of the outsider. Take Dustin Hoffman. When he played Shylock in Peter Hall's Merchant of Venice, the gap in acting styles increased his character's isolation: he wasn't just a Jew among Gentiles, he was a Yank among Brits.

In Terry Hands's production of The Visit the same device applies. Friedrich Durrenmatt set his searing 1956 play in an "economic blackspot", the derelict town of Guellen. But the richest woman in the world, Claire Zachanassian, is returning to her home town. So into the authentic world of British character actors, lolling around a crumbling railway station in tatty rags and old shoes, steps a remote, luminous New Yorker.

Brakes screech, air hisses, lights flash, smoke billows: the train arrives, and with it Lauren Bacall. Auburn hair, dark glasses, ghostly face: the Chichester audience are as bewitched by the entrance of a screen icon as the citizens of Guellen are by the arrival of a multi-millionairess. Her character only holds a walking stick on one side and her seventh husband on the other, but rarely has an actress stepped off a train carrying so much baggage. When Bacall's character refers to "the way I was, when I was 17", we know exactly the way the figure on stage was when 17 (well, 19): teaching Humphrey Bogart to whistle in To Have and Have Not.

She tilts her chin, smiles, blinks alluringly and offers the town a cool "billion". Her one condition is that they execute the man who made her pregnant 40 years ago, forcing her to leave and become a prostitute. "Everything can be bought," she says. The town refuses. "I'll wait."

After journeying so far for this big entrance, Bacall doesn't take her character much further. Imperviousness looks great in the spotlight, especially when your face has a time- worn, familiar nobility, but it's a thin quality to spread across two hours.

So the stately Bacall sits on the balcony while, below, the British cast sweat it out with their consciences. This they do very well. As the condemned man, Joss Ackland shifts superbly from nervous, chuckling unease to a monumental Old Testament dignity. His fleshy cheeks and metallic voice harden with resolve as terror gives way to an acceptance of fate.

Durrenmatt doesn't name the other Guelleners, but in Hands's production they are far from anonymous. Richard Moore is outstanding as the schoolmaster, a scruffy, bearded gesticulative "voice of thunder", who has taught the humanities all his life, but knows that (like everyone else) he will give into temptation. Joseph O'Conor as the equivocating mayor, Dennis Clinton as the blunt policeman and Sidney Livingstone as "Man One", all bring this Guellen to life.

One of the most captivating actors of his generation, Mark Rylance, is also one of the most outlandish. He performed Hamlet in pyjamas, Prospero among Oxfordshire's Rollright Stones, and Benedict in a Belfast accent. He has recently been appointed artistic director of the Shake- speare Globe. The trustees must view his new Macbeth with alarm.

His is the first Macbeth that could have stood in for Ben Kingsley in Gandhi. A slight figure, he has a shaven head, round-rimmed spectacles, and bows by dipping his head and bringing his palms together. After murdering Duncan's grooms he cleans his blood-stained glasses on his orange Hare Krishna costume. For this guy to become King of Scotland, to use Macbeth's own phrase, stands not within the prospect of belief.

If you were to list Rylance's qualities - intelligence, sweetness, barminess - you wouldn't cast him in this role. But Rylance has pulled the character as close towards himself (and as far from the medieval Scottish warrior) as he can. It makes for an extraordinary performance. His sincere face and unbombastic delivery draws us into a private world. His mind is "heat- oppressed", his brain "full of scorpions". In a soft, fretting American voice, Rylance lets whole passages slip by as if they were some low-key chant. This is the mind of a deeply screwy post-graduate. The kind of guy whose picture might well turn up on a News at Ten report as the leader of a mass suicide.

Rylance's idea has been to find a modern context where a strict hierarchy exists, and people, believing in weird prophecies and horrible imaginings, act rapidly and violently to fulfil them. This search has led him to sects and cults. "Thou marvellest at my words," he says - his Thane of Cawdor has a mesmeric power.

That's the basic premise; along the way Rylance throws in a mixture of inspired, camp and trivial ideas, while ditching a great many other strands. As Lady Macbeth, Jane Horrocks is not to be outdone in zaniness. For the banquet scene, where the characters wear fancy dress, she changes out of her sari into a nun's habit. She is so extreme as the embarrassed hostess that she might have stepped out of a Mike Leigh play. She keeps pushing the boundaries. In the sleep-walking scene, she enters in vest and knickers and appears to pee on stage.

There are happier moments - the porter, the craggy, spectral Tim Barlow, for instance, has to adjust his hearing aid before he realises someone's knocking on the door; while the Weird Sisters show Macbeth the line of kings as they pop up at a fairground shooting gallery.

As the battle looms between Macbeth and Malcolm, the main conflict turns out to be between what we see on stage - swivel chairs, word processors, mobile phones - and what the characters talk about: castles, swords, shields and armour. The world of sects and cults doesn't match these final scenes and this freakish production comes increasingly unstuck.

Stephen Sondheim's musical, A Little Night Music (1973), based on Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of A Summer Night, receives the deluxe treatment in Sean Mathias's revival at the National (see also music review, page 13). He directs a superb group of actresses, which includes Judi Dench, Sian Phillips, Patricia Hodge and Joanna Riding. But they are actresses first, singers second: this is not a production you leave wondering where you can obtain the cast recording.

Set in Sweden, at the turn of the century, Night Music is a highly witty, artful musical, that suffers from remoteness and chilly sophistication. I wonder if an ensemble piece such as this - interior monologues, bitchy conversations, neglible dance numbers - needs to luxuriate in a production of this scale. Each time the set revolves, conjuring up some elegant interior from the bowels of the building, with one or two characters perched on board, it diminishes the size of their stories. We are, after all, only watching aspects of love.

What is left to fill this huge stage is style. A knowing Broadway musical, already based on a European art- house movie, hardly needs a new layer of varnish. This isn't a big-hearted song-and-dance show, so it might reach out to us with something grainier and closer up. When a big number arrives, like "Send in the Clowns", Judi Dench hasn't the vocal power to stop the show. She does it instead with a raspy, broken voice, as if fighting back tears. It would be spell-binding in the Cottesloe. But you can't fill an epic stage like the Olivier with ironic regret.

'The Visit': Chichester Festival Theatre (01243 781312), to 14 Oct. 'Macbeth': Greenwich (0181 858 7755), to 28 Oct. 'A Little Night Music': Olivier, SE1 (0171 928 2252), in rep.