Theatre: On the Fringe

The Dybbuk; BAC : Things Can Only Get Better; Etcetera Theatre
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The Independent Culture
AT THE climax of The Dybbuk, a girl's body is possessed by a spirit as her scream rips across the stage. More the stuff of horror films than of religious theatre, it would seem, but this is a play that delves deep into Jewish mysticism and produces a compelling drama with a greater interest in the spiritual than the sensational.

On the muted, dimly lit set, the obscure codes and messages hidden inside the piles of dusty books seem suddenly to come to life, waking the audience up to the naked fear that erupts when a human being encounters uncontrollable "other-worldly" forces.

This play takes cabbalism way beyond the convoluted intellectual processes enjoyed by Umberto Eco fans, and weaves it into an unusual love story that goes deep into the fears controlled by organised religion.

S Anski's play was first performed in London in 1930, only a few years before the majority of those practising cabbalism perished in the Holocaust. Then it was acted out in front of a society that found the presence of God as tangible as the possibility of Ramsay MacDonald, the then Prime Minister, popping round for tea, and was consequently more open to spiritual issues than Nineties audiences are likely to be. Even so, David Farley's set instantly manages to draw you into a meditative, other-worldly atmosphere, as the audience perches on low benches around a stone floor piled with holy texts, and listens to subdued music reminiscent of Jewish religious songs.

The authenticity of the atmosphere is no doubt helped by the Jewish background of the 21-year-old director, Mark Rosenblatt, this year's winner of the James Menzies-Kitchin Award. The prize was set up in memory of the actor- turned-director who died suddenly at the age of 28 from heart failure, and is awarded annually so that a young, relatively untried director can bring a classical production to the stage.

Rosenblatt brings an assured and intelligent touch to his reading of The Dybbuk, endowing the play with an intensity that resists the temptation of spilling over into melodrama. Issues of reincarnation, predestined love and belief in ritual are all made to seem startlingly relevant in a production that veers from the contemplative to the spine-tingling.

The strength of the production is enhanced by a superb cast, led by Sally Hawkins and Luke de Lacey. Hawkins plays Leah, who is strongly resisting marriage to the wealthy young suitor her father has found her, because she senses a stronger connection between herself and Chonen (de Lacey), a friend of the family.

Chonen's death before the wedding is the prelude to a sense of fear and unease that is exacerbated when his spirit - the dybbuk - enters her body, and refuses to be cast out. Hawkins manages to avoid the comedy inherent in a woman going from alto to bass, as her character is possessed by the spirit of her male lover, and acts out the role with a blazing intensity that is beautifully offset by de Lacey's more ethereal passion.

While The Dybbuk blends religion and love, Things Can Only Get Better brings together politics and love in a play that - surprise, surprise - tackles issues raised by Blair's regime. Richard Roques' new work starts off inside the home of a newly elected woman MP, where her gay son and repressed homosexual brother-in-law are watching election night on television, while debating, with erotic intensity, who should be holding the remote control.

For the first half of the play, its central and clumsy metaphor seems to be that New Labour's abnegation of its socialist roots is like an overtly straight man denying his homosexuality. Although Roques is tackling sensitive and interesting issues by linking political hypocrisy with sexual hypocrisy, his dialogue is not well enough developed to create a convincing polemic.

It is difficult to condemn anyone who has brought the anti-Blair debate so passionately to the stage but, as yet, the intensity of his convictions outstrips his theatrical achievement.

Rachel Halliburton

`The Dybbuk', to 1 Aug (0171-223 2223); `Things Can Only Get Better', to 8 Aug (0171-482 4857)

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