Theatre: On the Fringe

Taking Sides Oval House Theatre Kristendom The Bridewell
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The Independent Culture
IN THE tiny theatre at the Oval House, the man screaming with the horror of his experiences knows that the audience will stop his message from being communicated into the void. It is no accidental irony that those same screams were originally submerged in Bosnia as part of the general horror of war, lost beneath the overwhelming suffering, media confusion and political manipulations.

John Graham Davies - better known for his more homely role opposite Patricia Routledge in Hetty Wainthrop Investigates - has written a play about his journeys as an aid worker to Bosnia. As Britain faces the threat of desensitisation to the war due to an overload of portrayals of suffering and propaganda from both sides, Graham Davies shows how theatre can succeed where newspapers and television fail.

On a stark stage, with minimal props, he presents the multi-layered complexities of this decade's Balkan conflicts by sketching characters who each reflect different aspects of the conflicts. A Kosovar miner hides behind a wall in dread as the ethnic cleansers approach his house; a Dutch soldier sent into Srebrenica as part of the peace-keeping forces tries to come to terms with the trauma of slipping on the corpse of a woman whose throat has been cut by Serbs; an unemployed ex-car thief from Yorkshire talks of his experiences with the convoy as they make their way to the multi-ethnic enclave of Tuzla; and a Serb returns from exile to join the anti-Milosevic demonstrations in Belgrade.

The production may sound like a worthy piece of agitprop, but it is much more. In some ways it is reminiscent of David Hare's travels to the Middle East in Via Dolorosa, which also uses an outsider's personal experiences and encounters to bring fresh meaning to a deeply complex political situation.

However, where Hare's insights take the form of a beautifully performed narrative, Graham Davies himself makes the full metamorphosis for each of the eight characters that fall under his spotlight. He switches with ease from the rueful observations of his narrator, Aziz, to the obscene protests of Dean the Yorkshireman or from Geoff, an alcoholic burglar from the East End, to Bajram, the miner fearing imminent torture and death.

A more stylised approach to war can be seen in Patrick Kealey's production of Kristendom. This production - which promises a wealth of rippling torsos on its publicity material - investigates the meanings of the medieval codes that governed a knight's existence by adapting the 15th-century novel Tirant Lo Blanc with the help of deliberate anachronisms and copious amounts of bubble-wrap.

Group K - which had its production of Kafka's Amerika nominated as a Time Out Critic's Choice - has reworked the layout of the Bridewell theatre so that it feels as if the audience is sitting around the arena for a jousting contest. On a blue slatted platform, men who are beautiful - and who know it - run up and down simulating sea battles, telling myths and debating the meanings of knighthood.

However, despite the cast's excessive confidence, (you find yourself asking whether they think they are called Special K rather than Group K) there is not enough coherence to convince the onlooker that it amounts to much more than pretentious posturing.

When the actors try to engage with medieval concepts, they skirt over the really interesting issues and resort to flippancy to bring their "text" alive. What could be imaginative staging is spoilt by this attitude; and sometimes the production just looks like King Arthur meets the Chippendales. Perhaps appropriately for a performance with such frequent nudity, the medieval text ends up looking like little more than the emperor's new clothes.

`Taking Sides' until 12 June at Oval House Theatre 0171-582 7680; `Kristendom' until 19 June at The Bridewell 0171-936 3456