THEATRE /Off West End: String in the air

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There are two schools of thought on Howard Barker: those who don't know what he's on about and think it's all rubbish; and those who don't know what he's on about but are gripped by his disconnected, furious eloquence. (There are also people who say they do understand him, but I assume they're showing off.)

All He Fears is unlikely to shift anybody's views significantly, although it does make considerable concessions to lucidity. The outlines of an allegory discernible underneath the jerky, unreal narrative. Botius, the philosopher hero, is recognisably the type of the liberal intellectual. He refuses to resist, and even invites, the loss of everything he values: his mistress leaves him, hooligans blind him, a prostitute robs him, he falls down a dark hole and the hooligans come and urinate over him. Finally, he escapes into a nightmare-pastoral afterlife: his brain explodes out of the top of his head, and he meets a giant horse with an over-literal take on the line about all flesh being grass.

This is Barker's first venture into puppet theatre (performed aboard the Theatre Barge, moored in Little Venice), and it's easy to see what attracted him. True, there are longueurs, patches when the imaginative zeal of the writing seems out of step with the medium's limitations, and the acting is inevitably wooden (this doesn't apply to the taped soundtrack, voiced by Ian McDiarmid and Harriet Walter among others).

But at times, especially in the second half, it seems that puppetry has taken the brakes off Barker's imagination, allowing for some spellbinding effects never achievable with real actors - a long, Alice-in-Wonderland tumble down the hole, showers of glitter when Botius is pissed on, scarlet ribbons rocketing out of his exploding skull. The programme says you have to 'surrender conventional expectations of theatre'. In the end, willy-nilly, it forces you to do exactly that.

On the other hand, Alexandra Kollontai, at the New End in Hampstead, panders to all your conventional expectations of theatre. Kollontai was the only woman member of the Bolshevik government in Russia; she fell from grace because she opposed peace with Germany, and because she humiliated herself in an effort to save her (much younger) lover from the firing squad, earning a reputation for hysteria and nymphomania.

You can see why Barbara Ewing, who wrote and performs the show, was attracted to the story. What you can't see is why she felt the need to iron out virtually everything that's interesting about it. It isn't just that the play (originally written for radio) makes virtually no concessions to theatre. Kollontai herself is presented as a spotless liberal heroine, her only sins to be too compassionate, too committed to the workers' cause - infinitely admirable, infinitely unconvincing and infinitely dull.

'All He Fears' runs to 23 April at the Theatre Barge, London W9 (071-249 6876). 'Alexandra Kollontai', to 7 March, New End Theatre, NW3 (071-794 0022).

(Photograph omitted)