THEATRE / Maladies are made of this

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OLIVER SACKS does not write plays, but he is the cause of plays by other men. Even for non-playwrights, the effect of reading Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat is to set the dramatic imagination racing. One obvious reason for this is that his case histories connect with ancient theatrical themes: in particular, madness and salvation.

Of madness, the question for modern playwrights is whether it can be staged at all. The sight of a man losing his wits exerts an invincible fascination on the spectator, but once the victim goes over the edge the thread of interest snaps as though he were already dead. Sacks's writings repeatedly suggest ways of following him into inner space, as an undiminished and even heroic character. Simultaneously, they weave multiple variations around the rescue legend: so that in one instance, the physician may haul Persephone out of the Underworld, or alternatively figure as a defeated Prince Charming abandoning Beauty to her endless sleep. Sacks also restores the Greek twinning of medicine and music.

One day, I hope to see a theatrical collaboration between Sacks and his fellow neurologist and old school-chum, Jonathan Miller. Meanwhile, he has inspired stage pieces by Harold Pinter, Michael Nyman, and now Peter Brook, whose The Man Who opened in Manchester last week at the start of a 10-week tour.

Brook's evident intention is to treat Sacks's findings as a springboard for discoveries of his own. As a neurologist has enriched the theatre, so perhaps the theatre can give something back to neurology. What Brook and his Paris-based company certainly deliver is the translation of speculative narrative into physical action. I spotted little trace of fresh material from their background reading and meetings with hospital patients; but independent research has led them back to deeply truthful enactment of cases cited by Sacks.

On a laboratory stage - white wood chairs, a video camera and two monitors - the multi-ethnic cast of four men work through a succession of neurological maladies, exchanging pyjama tops for white coats as they cross the medical divide. There are memory cases: one who receives electronically stimulated images of the past; another who instantly erases the experience of the present scene. Others vainly attempt to make sense of familiar objects, seeing a rose as a long stick or a glove as a complicated kind of purse. All emerge as intelligent people struggling to invent themselves and the world from one moment to the next.

Another patient (wonderfully played by Yoshi Oida) is alienated from his own body, and falls to the ground with a cry of enraged disgust when he tries to throw his leg out of bed. There are dreamers. One (David Bennent) believes he is at home in bed, and plans to wake up by jumping from the hospital roof. A second is kept awake by childhood songs that have invaded his head, but for him (a Sacksian paradox) the ailment brings a sense of well-being: 'I don't want to be cured. I need these melodies.' Tourette's Syndrome, the only malady named in the show, convulses Bruce Myers into a hailstorm of physical and verbal spasms through which you can still see a sensible man fighting to make himself understood.

It is a sensational piece of acting, but in this context, it simply takes its place as an accurate display of a neurological conditon. It shows the comedy as well as the anguish of a cerebral calamity, and enforces your respect for the sufferer to the extent of imagining yourself inside his head. The production does not fulfil Brook's own prescription of supplying a structure from which you can subsequently reassemble the event. But its separate episodes go straight into the memory bank; and there could be no more convincing advocate for the healing power of music than its instrumentalist, Mahmoud Tabrizi-Zadeh.

Given the adventurous reputation of Bolton's Octagon Theatre, and its director's experience of the Spanish stage, I thought the management must have some good reason for commissioning a Lancashire version of Lorca's Blood Wedding from Henry Livings. If so, it does not emerge from Lawrence Till's production. A Yorkshire tragedy, perhaps. But Lancashire drama (and I speak as a Boltonian) resists the tragic. It has rows instead, and underdog comedy; and when these filter through Livings's text, the stage briefly lights up.

Someone offers the bridegroom a glass of wine. 'He doesn't,' his mother (Valerie Lilley) snaps like a rat-trap, and Fuente Vaqueros succumbs to the grey skies of Salford. Later, when she gets on to her favourite topic of blood-feuds, we get the exquisite spectacle of Richard Mayes, as the bride's phlegmatic father, twisting his hat in his hands and looking around in despair for someone to rescue him from this crazy female. Pure Lancashire. By contrast, lines such as 'This place burns us all up' fall with a squelch.

Apart from Jane Hazlegrove, emotionally spot-on as Leonardo's spurned wife, the show is undercast. But what cast could do justice to Lorca through the racket of jolly clog dances and the no less hobnailed dialogue? When the rhythms of Till's scenic language displace those of the text - as in the pursuit of the runaways - Lancashire vanishes, and for a few scorching moments we get back to the South.

For The Cheating Hearts, Ranjit Bolt's racy version of Marivaux's La Double Inconstance, the Gate presents two starkly contrasted stage pictures: a room of diagrammatically monochrome austerity which opens up on brilliantly coloured perspectives of unimaginable luxury. Such is Anthony MacIlwaine's design comment on the two worlds of this comedy, in which a pair of peasant lovers are kidnapped by an amorous prince. The same idea is followed through in the costume contrast between the court's fairy-tale silks and Harlequin and Silvia's diamond-embroidered rags. That is fine for the start of the play, with its distinction between nature and artifice. But as the comedy develops, and the manipulative courtiers become enmeshed by true affection, the lines become blurred.

Laurence Boswell's production takes small account of this. It is powerfully rhythmic and menacing, graced with choruses of sinister masks and ominous cooks. But while Marivaux explores delicate fluctuations of the heart, the production advances with the inflexibility of an infernal machine. It is a commanding spectacle but it prevents you from following the characters' thoughts. In a good company (Sara Mair-Thomas, John Baxter), Marcello Magni's Harlequin holds the comic centre, but it is a pity that his acrobatic clowning is stifled on this tiny stage.

'The Man Who': Newcastle Playhouse, 091-230 5151. 'Blood Wedding': Octagon Bolton, 0204 20661. 'Cheating Hearts': Gate, W11, 071-229 0706.

(Photograph omitted)