THEATRE / Lift: Chekhov with lashings of Wooster sauce: Sarah Hemming watches Willem Dafoe and Co subvert Three Sisters, plus Bobby Baker off her trolley

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
As always, the programme notes tell you, the New York Wooster Group's avant-garde new show will include 'monitors . . . microphones . . . and meta-plot'. This time, though, the show is Three Sisters. If the idea of applying the three Ms to Chekhov makes your hair stand on end, you're not alone. But the Woosters set about their task with such wit that it's hard to resist them.

Though it tells the story of Olga, Masha and Irina, Brace Up] (Riverside Studios, run ended) is as far removed from Three Sisters in style as Chekhov's Russia is from late 20th- century America. There's no set, no naturalism and no gently elegiac mood. The actors, in various states of disarray, are on an empty stage littered with cables, video monitors, microphone stands and rug-covered chairs. The show is co-ordinated by a narrator (Kate Valk), who tries to play the television chat-show host when she is not sprinting round the stage preventing disaster. 'Where was that you said you wanted to go?' she asks, thrusting her microphone at Irina. 'Moscow,' replies the 20-year-old character, played in this version by a woman in her 70s.

The actor playing Solyony is 'on vacation', so he's represented by a roaring dinosaur movie on a monitor; some actors, covertly being filmed, switch between screen and stage; others (such as Andrei's plaintive wife, Natasha), never make it off the screen. Quite where the boundaries lie between screen-character, stage-character and actor is never clear; the action can be fast-forwarded by the narrator when time is pressing, and actors occasionally miss their cues or repeat their speeches.

Despite all this apparent disorder, the plot is got through and the story told. In place of Chekhov's great dramatic portrait of individuals trapped in a dying era, we see the characters struggling with their feelings in a confusing and absurd world of constant noise and jumbled, bite-sized culture. The show could be a complete cacophony, but in fact it is rigorously logical; it could be disturbingly pretentious, but it employs little tricks to puncture any pomposity - at one point the character of Vershinin, delivering a philosophical speech, roves before the audience like a televangelist, then bangs his head on the state-of-the-art scaffolding.

What is remarkable is how much of Chekhov survives this outrageous deconstruction - particularly the spirit of confusion, yearning, lost hope and waste (assisted by evocative music). Clearly, Brace Up] has none of the emotional subtlety and continuation of the original - there is, deliberately, no comparison: it would be like comparing the Pompidou Centre with St Paul's cathedral - and when it comes down to it, I would still rather see a production of Chekhov's Three Sisters. But this is a fascinating, successful and superbly skilful attempt to take the spirit and bones of a piece and recreate it in entirely new stage terms. Unlike a lot of Wooster show clones, it is truly unpredictable, absurd, surprisingly moving, and it has some wonderfully funny performances, particularly Ron Vawter's deadpan Vershinin (at once hilarious and pathetic), Peyton Smith's Olga and Willem Dafoe's boffinish Andrei. What next? Hamlet, or The Snap Decision?

While the Wooster Group gives us a play that is not a play, Bobby Baker delivers a lecture that is not a lecture. Baker, too, is in the business of combining reverence and irreverence; she is a performance artist who sends up (partly) performance art. She's also an original: it is hard to imagine any other performer who could come up with How to Shop (Regent's Park College to 11 July), an hour-long lecture on the 'art of shopping' - except, perhaps, Ken Campbell.

Baker strides on to the stage, fixing her audience with a tight little smile like a headmistress at school assembly about to mete out full-scale detention. Demanding proper concentration from her spectators, she promises us a 'deconstruction of the shopping experience' and, after a few preliminaries reminding beginners how to locate, secure and handle a supermarket trolley, she embarks on an illustrated lecture on how to 'shop for life'. We work our way through seven virtues (humility, obedience, patience, joy, courage, compassion and love), Baker showing us how to find them in your local co-op. But as the show progresses, her demonstration becomes more and more absurd, until finally she finds herself flying in a giant plastic carrier bag above the stage to the strains of a heavenly choir.

Though, like any full shopping bag, it sags a little in the middle, How to Shop is enjoyable, daft and controlled: a wittily packaged show with a serious and touching content. Baker draws attention to an ordinary, low-profile, housewifely task and attributes dignity and meaning to it.

The phrase 'designer-theatre' takes on a new dimension in the face of Journeys from Jourouvert by the Costume Designers' Club (Old Spitalfields Market, run ended). To tell the story of carnival and its development in Trinidad, the show uses the style of carnival - a pageant of flamboyant and ridiculous costumes, combined with exuberant dance and music. Beginning with a Carib-Indian ritual, it sprints through the arrival of Europeans, Africans, Asians, illustrating the imprints they left on the nature of carnival, and shows how the festival has survived all restrictions placed on it. The script leaves rather a lot to be desired, but the dancing is strong and the costumes impressive.

A masked ball is represented by dancers with hats that would put Ascot to shame; the struggle to restrict the anarchy of carnival is portrayed by 'big heads' - giant and sinister figures manipulated by dwarfed dancers. Best of all, though, is the scene illustrating the arrival of the 20th century, with the ship industry and attendant invention of the steel pan. Through the curtains bursts a precariously glued, giant paper ship bearing a full steel band - all pans on board - throbbing with music. It is worth seeing for this feat of nautical splendour alone.

LIFT continues to 12 July (Information: 071-379 8009; Booking: 071-413 1459).

(Photograph omitted)