THEATRE / Mendes dirties up the club

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IN Cabaret it was the intention of the authors (Joe Masteroff, John Kander and Fred Ebb) to give their big-spending Broadway and West End spectators the illusion of squashing into a disreputable Berlin dive, watching performers deliver material that would never have stood a chance of getting to the West End or on to Broadway.

Nothing on the commercial stage comes more expensive than slumming; but Sam Mendes, by heaven knows what budgetary magic, has changed the illusion into fact. By replacing the floor- level seats with individually lit tables (alas, no telephones), he has converted his little house into a nightclub where the chorus- line/band present their crepe-de- Chine rumps at point-blank range, and no ice-cream eater is safe from being hauled on stage for an unsavoury knees-up with the Master of Ceremonies.

This is an event of great theatrical verve. The new space is exciting and springs a series of dynamic surprises; Sue Blane's costumes are terrific, and so is the band. Performances include such luxury casting as Sara Kestelman (superb) and George Raistrick as the stoical landlady and her Jewish suitor. And, as the MC, smirking in kiss curls and punk dishabille, Alan Cumming brilliantly unites the aggressiveness of modern alternative comedy with the decadent glamour of Isherwood's Berlin.

Why, then, did the show leave me cold? Some things were always wrong with Cabaret. The conversion of the blank Isherwood narrator into Cliff, the red-blooded American blunderer, is one of them. The treatment of the Kit-Kat Club as a hotbed of Nazism, when one of the first things the Nazis did was wipe such places out, is another. On a large stage you can overlook these things. Nobody expects Broadway musicals to make sense. But Mendes treats the piece as if it were as authentic as The Blue Angel, and relentlessly exposes its contradictions. He dirties up Kander and Ebb's antiseptic routines no end. Quite right; but how, in a context of mimed fellatio and buggery, can Sally Bowles achieve the expected frisson of her opening number, 'Don't Tell Mama', with its daring confession that she's wearing a pair of lace knickers? Jane Horrocks, sharp and birdlike in this role, is excellent as a displaced Chelsea deb and in sardonic duets like 'Money', but she lacks the vocal weight required for the title number.

Mendes's boldest move is to expand the cabaret setting to include the whole story, so that even back in Cliff's room or Schultz's fruit shop, the MC is spying on them like a troll. Again, a perfectly logical extension of the book; except that it obliterates the distinction between the hard outside world and the pleasure parlour where 'we have no troubles'. Then, having identifed the leering voyeur as a Nazi agent, Mendes brings him on for a final striptease - wearing Auschwitz pyjamas and a yellow star] Like Ariel spitting in Prospero's face at the end of Mendes's production of The Tempest, this is an effective last-minute shock of a kind that makes the theatre seem contemptible.

A typewriter and a hairdryer take their place among cannons and helmets in the National Theatre's mobile production of Brecht's Mother Courage, casually acknowledging the play's dreadful topicality. In Europe's present reprise of the Thirty Years' War, there is no need to labour the importance of this masterpiece; and Anthony Clark directs it so as to show

the characters getting through the day with as much profit and fun as they can against a background of atrocities that are

too commonplace to mention.

The playing is agile, and unencumbered by Brechtian paraphernalia (the captions are delivered as impassive radio announcements). Some performances are lightweight (though not Michelle Joseph's fine Kattrin). What puts the show in a class by itself is Ellie Haddington's title performance: a wiry, clown-faced trader who loves her job. This is the first Courage I have seen who makes the audience laugh; and the first who refrains from acting up to her name - no defiantly set jaw, no intimations of oncoming tragedy. Instead she rebounds from every disaster with renewed good nature and comic vitality, until she is finally ground down, and the clown face vanishes into a heap of rags straddling the dead Kattrin. Magnificent.

Another German masterpiece still awaiting successful English staging, Buchner's Woyzeck, appears in a resourceful bilingual fringe version (translation and direction by Katrin Magrowitz). Violently ritualised in style, it pays exaggerated attention to the play's expressionist prophesies. But realism also gets full due in the truthful performances of Udo Zwilling, Raquel Cassidy, and the boyish Woyzeck of Philippe Brenninkmeyer.

Arnolphe, the protagonist of The School for Wives, spends 14 years bringing a girl up in the state of ignorance befitting a perfect wife, and then loses her to another man. Some of the human and poetic richness Moliere brought to this old tale is faithfully projected in Jonathan Kent's production. The dazzling translation is by Richard Wilbur. Peter J Davison's beautiful street scene represents Agnes's house as a barred mausoleum, so that when she descends from her room it is like the awakening of Pygmalion's statue - a process exquisitely articulated in Emma Fielding's performance. Linal Haft and Carol Macready do an uproarious double-act as her peasant jailers. But what about Arnolphe? Is he a fool, a villain, an artist whose work misfires? Or an ordinary man in terror of being cuckolded? Ian McDiarmid does not leave you much the wiser. His only development is from self-satisfaction into gibbering frenzy. McDiarmid grades that with much comic skill; but you do not get to know the man.

Fay Weldon's adaptation of Jane Eyre, which I saw at Theatr Clwyd, reaches London with new leads and minus several feet of Lez Brotherston's set. Its Gothic window frames and dead branches still cast a powerful spell, as do the assembly of sad-faced dolls which carry the heroine's charity school memories over into her new life. The effect is reminiscent of Kantor's Dead Class; and repeatedly in Helena Kaut-Howson's production an English classic is reimagined through European eyes. As Weldon retells the story, the men are apt to get it in the neck. But there Alexandra Mathie's unshakably reserved Jane and Tim Pigott- Smith's sulphurously well-bred Rochester are well matched.

'Cabaret', Donmar, 071-867 1150; 'Mother Courage', Cottesloe, 071- 928 2252; 'Woyzeck', Etcetera, 071-482 4857; 'School for Wives', Almeida, 071-359 4404; 'Jane Eyre', Playhouse, 071-839 4401.

(Photograph omitted)