THEATRE / Party tips on democracy

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The Independent Culture
IT IS a habit of star directors (Peter Hall, Andrei Serban, Ariane Mnouchkine) to turn to Greek tragedy when they have nothing left to say. Peter Stein's Oresteia, the seven-and-a-half-hour centrepiece of the official Edinburgh programme, is an exception to that rule. Stein has been busy with the Greeks for more than 20 years, and his latest venture - with the Academic Theatre of the Russian Army - springs from an evident belief that Aeschylus' treatment of the birth of democracy contains some useful tips for the former Soviet Union.

Most of these come in the trilogy's final play, The Eumenides, for which Stein dispels the tragic clouds and throws a party. A barrage of special effects invades the hitherto barren space of the Murrayfield Ice Rink. A vast sun disc dazzles the audience; the goddess is flown in like Peter Pan. Maybe Stein intended a satyr play, but it is more like a TV gameshow, with Athena as the silver- lame hostess, Apollo as a celestial lyre-strumming director, and Orestes as the lucky jackpot winner. It is prizes all round, as the old-guard Furies in their ragged Army greatcoats are absorbed in the new society where there will be justice and respect for all. As Roberto Calasso says, 'Athens loves the guilty'.

All this comes as a relief after the previous plays, in which the rise of Athens amounts to a Spartan ordeal. For one thing, the company is no longer pretending to feelings it hasn't got. Members include some capable actors, but none that rises to the heroic occasion. The reunion of Electra and Orestes in The Choephoroe brings no lump to the throat; no sense of overpowering dread accompanies Agamemnon's homecoming. Leaden direction is also to blame. In place of tragic rhythm, it offers delaying tactics; so that when Cassandra pauses for the third time at the fatal palace doorway, you long for her to get off and die.

Members of the Chorus meanwhile rearrange themselves for each ode or tirade and hold their position until the next one arrives. Close your eyes for five minutes and they are still in the same place. The aim, presumably, is to focus attention on the text - Stein's own version which flashes up in translated surtitles. Comes the death of Agamemnon and an off-stage gurgle is followed by hefty crump. Chorus: 'It seems the deed is done. I propose we storm the house and investigate.' But they don't. At the sight of the bleeding corpses (breaking the Greeks' 'obscenity' rule) they flee up the aisles and line up shoulder to shoulder blocking the sightlines of two-thirds of the house. You would see better movement in a civic pageant.

In a parallel exercise, Merlin, by the Polish Wierszalin Theatre, Roman Catholicism and Arthurian legend combine in a spellbinding fable, demonstrating that the East European art of Aesopian political comment is not yet dead. The show recounts the tragedy of Camelot within the framework of a Mass, with one actor - Aleksander Skowronski - doubling as Merlin and the officiating Monk. On an altar supported by four demons, the story of the Grail unfolds to chanted Hosannahs and the Dies Irae. One knight slays Pride, and then succumbs to it. Another slays Greed, and takes a cash reward.

The knights are like enlarged chess pieces with the altar as their board. But once in action, it is more like playing toy soldiers, as the actors identify with their pieces and charge into combat using them as weapons. The object of their quest - piety and beauty, both embodied by the marvellous Joanna Kasperek - remains forever out of reach. And the image of a brutal children's game becomes all too accurate when Camelot collapses into brawling chaos, and the Round Table is overturned to make a pyre for the burning of Guinevere. With these ancient materials, Piotr Tomaszuk's company re-enact the Fall of Man since the Eden of 1989.

Forewarned of a four-hour version of The Winter's Tale I was expecting the Centre Dramatique National Orleans-Loiret to go to town on the sheep-shearing party. Wrong. The party was over in a flash, and instead of folk dances its main attraction was the sight of Florizel and Perdita snogging downstage. Apart from a Guthrian scene of four smoking gentlemen upstaging each other with accounts of the royal reunion, the show is low on fun, and Leon Napias kills Autolycus by systematising him into a Shakespearian Scapin.

The life of Stephane Braunschweig's production lies in Sicily; Bohemia simply offers a pastoral interlude between the laying on of a curse and its removal. The shadow of Leontes is everywhere. What happens, the show asks, when a ruler goes mad? The set supplies one answer. At the onset of Leontes's jealousy it rears up to an angle of 35 degrees, and then rises again at the wrath of Apollo. Moral vertigo takes on a physical form. Wrenched out of natural balance, the level floor becomes a presentational platform under the eye of the god; an environment where everything is laid bare and nothing comes naturally. Lying in his sleepless bed, Leontes appears to be upside down. Even walking is difficult (hence one reason for the performance's slow tempo).

Jealousy strikes Pierre-Alain Chapuis's Leontes like cancer. It is pointless to look for a motive. The soft amiable face creases into a tortured smirk, and from that moment he inhabits a private hell. As Hermione, Irina Dalle makes a wonderful transition from contentment to crushed despair; but you cannot view her as the victim of a tyrant as Leontes is no less a victim than she is. Apart from occasional eruptions, he speaks through grief and tears. The reward for both characters comes in the statue scene, when she moves towards him and takes his hand, still expressionless as stone. Leontes slumps to the floor, unable to look at her, and delivers the final speeches sotto voce, still half-immersed in his 16-year nightmare. Although the stage resumes the horizontal, there is no brisk return to the normal world - the key line remains: 'Your actions are my dreams.'

Shakespearian jealousy undergoes even more radical treatment in the Ukrainian Podol Art Project's Iago which presents Othello's downfall from the viewpoint of his lieutenant. It takes place in a swimming pool so you might assume Vitaly Malakhov's production to be a freakish novelty. It is not. As Peter Brook has shown, nothing contains more theatrical power than the elements of earth, fire and water. To allow actors to inhabit more than one element opens up an unexplored scenic vocabulary of huge potential.

On this occasion, water becomes the element of gratified desire. The show begins with Desdemona diving in and swimming a length before news of the elopement reaches her father; water becomes the lovers' marriage bed, and Othello finally buries Desdemona in water. To Iago, it is simply useful for drowning people. He never sets foot in it until, handcuffed to the dead hero, he is dragged to his death in the alien element.

As replotted by Malakhov, the play becomes a study in homicidal frustration, eliminating racial contrast, and pitting a puny, authoritarian Othello (Vladimir Kouznetsov) against Anatoly Khostikoev as the towering title character. A head taller than anyone else, Iago comes over as a superman thwarted by dwarfish inferiors. If any irony is intended, it does not penetrate the language

barrier, except in the final confrontation. Shakespeare's Iago blocks the confrontation with the line, 'I never will speak word'. Khostikoev's Iago says plenty, holding his stricken General in a comforting embrace, and then pouring out his accumulated loathing, and taunting his victim with the handkerchief. Tremendous.

Among flashier events, Edinburgh 1994 will be remembered as the festival of J M Synge. Communicado's magnificent revival of The Playboy is now joined by an Abbey Theatre production of his first full- length play, The Well of the Saints. It is a revelation. The story of two blind beggars, Mary and Martin, who miraculously regain their sight and then return gladly to darkness when their eyes have taken in the cruelties of the Christian world, it is a prophetic work, both in narrative technique and pagan content, pointing the way forward to Beckett and Brian Friel. These echoes are picked up in Patrick Mason's fine production, where abandoned crutches by the sacred well appear as whitening bones (set by Monica Frawley), and the love-hate backchat of the benighted couple (Pat Leavy and Derry Power) forecasts that of Vladimir and Estragon. The second act, in which the yearning old beggar entrances a heartless young girl through the sheer power of language, occupies a magical territory that belongs to Synge alone.