THEATRE / Marriage guidance: Richard Loup-Nolan on Durrenmatt in Glasgow

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The Independent Culture
IT WOULD be sad if theatre programmes went the way of property particulars, for the printing errors and exaggerations can be both hilarious and revealing. For example, the programme for the new production of Friedrich Durrenmatt's Play Strindberg - The Dance of Death by the Scottish touring company, Winged Horse, credits the glowing tag 'Dazzling . . . among the best moments I have ever had in the theatre' to both the Guardian and the New York Times. Winged Horse is clearly trying very hard indeed.

There are two obvious reasons for these efforts. First, Strindberg has a reputation for being a bit gloomy, and second, Play Strindberg is Eve Jamieson's first project as Winged Horse's new Artistic Director. It's an audacious choice.

Durrenmatt's 1969 re-working of Strindberg's rambling (some might say raving) original is a masterpiece of compression. The last days of a hate-filled marriage between a misanthropic military author (special subject: ballistics) and his ex-actress wife are played out in 13 scenes (or 'rounds'), the bitter dialogue always terse and to the point. Durrenmatt also edited down the cast, turning the play into a three-hander.

Isolated in their lonely tower on a lonely island, Edgar and Alice communicate with the outside world only by teleprinter until their solitude is broken by the intrusion of Kurt, the new Head of Quarantine and Alice's cousin (and ex-lover).

Perhaps seeing Strindberg's plot as a wicked parody of Ibsen, Durrenmatt used Strindberg's wild, vitriolic story for his own neo-Brechtian purposes, turning it into a detached argument against bourgeois marriage.

Eve Jamieson's production detaches itself still further from the story and its characters by giving us Edgar (Robert Paterson) and Alice (Estrid Barton) as poet-modernist grotesques, strutting their stuff on a set that leaves us in less than no doubt that we are to see marriage as a cross between a boxing match and a war. Malcolm Murray's design lacks a controlling idea, mixing sandbags, spears, oriental gongs and what look like giant chess pieces (as seats) into an indigestible visual broth.

James Kirkup's translation is clear and effective, although it might have been sensible to edit out the Americanisms. One of Edgar and Alice's children is said to have 'flunked' an exam at school, for example.

It is, however, the characterisation that really undermines the production. Paterson and Barton work very hard at creating their respective tic-ridden monsters but play remorselessly to the gallery. Not surprisingly, the audience is reluctant to collude, even when Kurt (Bill Murdoch) makes a low-key appearance on the scene, his more natural performance seeming merely out of key. The effect of Jamieson's direction is like Joe Orton performed by Cannon and Ball, or Fawlty Towers played in clown costume with John Cleese winking asides to the camera. We are left emotionally so far outside the play it's impossible to get back in. It is a measure of the strength of Durrenmatt's writing that Play Strindberg manages to hold the audience's attention, even if the company's comic intentions are not realised.

On tour around Scotland to 15 May (details: 041-332 5127)