THEATRE / Planks and passion: Paul Taylor on The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol, a new production from Theatre de Complicite at Riverside Studios

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The Independent Culture
Among their many other accomplishments, Theatre de Complicite are masters of the theatrically-heightened transition. Who could forget, from their patchy production of The Winter's Tale, the stunning shift they effected from the Bohemian sheep-shearing rebels of Act 4 back to the Sicilian world of ice- bound remorse in Act 5. Before your very eyes, the travellers circuiting the stage metamorphosed, by magical degrees, into a snow-spattered penetential procession of grim, bent-backed oldsters - festival seamlessly transmuted to funeral.

Images which fuse the idea of change and of weird underlying continuity are even more germain to the company's deeply moving new work, a stage adaptation of 'The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol' a story in John Berger's Pig Earth. Set in a French peasant community, the piece first represents a world where labour is a cyclical ritual like the round of burials which pass on the responsibility to the next generation. This is beautifully captured in the moment when Lucie's mother, leading her own funeral cortege, ties her apron round the waist of her firebrand of a daughter; the passing of a spirit here represented as a weightless sartorial unburdening.

Continuity and change are also apparent in the company's choice of subject matter. Their first major hit was an adaptation of Durrenmatt's The Visit in which a betrayed village belle returns years later as a ruthless millionairess, intent on revenge. Here there's a similar equation, only rearranged so that the central relationship comes across more like a distorted image of that between Pier Gynt and Solveig.

Transfixingly played by Lilo Baur, the heroine Lucie is a sprite- like midget of unpredictable temper, superstitiously called the Cocadrille after a creature which kills off opposition with its deadly glance. Faithful for 40 years to Jean (the director, Simon McBurney), who absconded to the Americas after one night of passion with her, she's Solveig heavily doctored with doses of Durrenmatt's heroine and of Mother Courage. For it's the adventurer abroad who here returns skint and the person abandoned who has made a packet. Cast out of the family farm to a lonely shack by her crooked brothers, Lucie survives through her second life by turning into a demon market trader and smuggler. The twist to the story is that her rootedness so shames and angers the rootless man that she is forced to survive into a third posthumous life inside Jean's imagination before she can get him to marry her.

The dead's powerful presence amongst the living is signalled from the show's first image: lined up on the brown earth-covered stage, a row of empty boots is evocative of the quondam owners who, summoned to life again by the story, step back into them. Effortlessly spanning a spectrum of moods, there's charged simplicity in most of what follows: from the piercingly tragic, as in the butchering by Nazis of an idealistic young maquisard which is presented as the hurling of a bucket of blood over his thin white torso, to the exquisitely droll, as when the cast, with raised arms and drooping fingers, mime berry bushes and Lucie, unable to get at one branch, cheats by hitting the actor in the stomach.

It's sometimes said that theatre is just a few planks and a passion and here that often seems literally true, with rucksacks represented by up-ended chairs, a torrid love scene where the planks of the stable rush around in a berserk expressionist ballet and a mystical final section where Jean helps the departed to rebuild the Cabrol family's ruined chalet. 'Justice will be done when the living know what the dead have suffered,' declares the ghost of the maquisard. It's one of the merits of this haunting, beautifully-lit and scored show, that it imparts to such knowledge the poignant illusion of palpability.

Runs to 31 March (Booking: 081- 748 3354)

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