THEATRE / Prophet, loss and shapes of things to come

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The Independent Culture
A LONE pilgrim stands on a misty mountain path, communing with nature and relishing his liberation from mankind and its wicked ways. Up pops a wayside hermit to punch a few holes in his ecstatic reverie. After a few minutes the pilgrim cuts him short and drops his seraphic tone. 'Enough of this,' he says briskly, 'I'm getting cold,' and makes off to a honky-tonk joint down in the valley.

The Great Highway, Strindberg's last play (1909), is an amazing piece. With its throwback to Ibsen's Peer Gynt and forecast of German expressionism, Beckett and beyond, a history of the modern stage is packed into its 90 minutes. But what really takes your breath away is not its status as an avant-garde crystal ball, but the same paradox you find everywhere in Strindberg, from his Inferno period to his final years of spiritual detachment: a writer combining egomania with an objective viewpoint. He sees himself as Ishmael wrestling with God in the desert; but as soon as he starts dramatising this solo combat, comic social reality breaks in.

In outline, The Great Highway sounds as glum as anything by Toller and Co. The pilgrim retraces his earthly journey towards some dimly perceived salvation, beset by memories of a murder and a lost daughter, his route consisting of seven stations beginning with a pair of windmills, ominously inscribed 'Adam and Eve'. But it turns out to be a children's farce about two rival millers who drag the pilgrim and his companion into their knockabout performance. 'I knew it,' growls the wanderer, 'We're in it now]' So much for spiritual dignity. Then the couple move on to Ass's Town (in Kenneth McLeish's translation) where the most stupid citizen, a butcher, is regularly elected mayor.

Like Peer Gynt, Strindberg's hero is seeking his lost self, haunted by the figure of an abandoned girl. But where Ibsen tracks the wasteland of middle-life, Strindberg's territory is life's beginning and ending: what happens between is seen as a futile charade. As a result, when the piece moves you it is not through pathos but unemotional detail, either of childhood (crumbs in bed) or leave- taking - as where one character sits for a farewell conversation and then calmly walks into the fire.

David Farr's production does not succeed in clarifying the narrative's development; but it is beautifully responsive to the play's modulations between prayer, fairytale, dream and clown show - in all of which Sylvester Morand, as the crusty spiritual vagrant, is in his element.

Fairytale also thrives in Brian Thompson's Derby Day, a Yorkshire Theatre Company show in which a hippophile orphan makes it as a Derby-winning jockey in the teeth of the patriarchal racing establishment, and is reconciled to her foster parent who vanquishes the course stewards by throwing the rule book at them. There are other fetching narrative twists, such as a talking horse as the heroine's infallible confidant.

But, as always with this troupe, the main pleasure comes from their inexhaustibly inventive staging: minimal resources, maximum imagination. With a few costume changes, Toby Swift's four actors present the whole society of the track, from blue-bloodedly clueless punters down to the stable

lads who sabotage the heroine (Rosalind Paul) at every turn. They do the horses as well, with a couple of nail-biting races.

The instant character changes are marvellous; as with the equestrian transformation of Christopher Halliday from a North Country booby into high- stepping aristo in dark glasses, chewing his cud like gum - the undisputed star of the evening.

The English Shakespeare Company's London season coincides with the announcement that its touring operation will end in April. Bad news. But you can believe it from Tim Carroll's production of Julius Caesar, which shrieks its rock-bottom budgeting in everything from a scrap-timber set to the frantic doubling of 11 actors among twice as many roles. Portia (no costume change) comes on as Antony's messenger; Calpurnia as Young Cato. For the funeral orations, the lights go down so the conspirators can creep back as the Roman mob.

Carroll's modern-dress production has some strikingly fresh detail - Ligarius using his sickness to get Antony (Alex Hardy) off stage before the assassination; Brutus (the organ- voiced Burt Caesar) raising a victorious sword at Philippi only to quail and let it fall on recognising his adversary as Caesar's baleful ghost (David Sterne). Given a chance, these principals could do the play justice; they do not get it here.

Anna Reynolds's Wild Things offers a image of life in a psychiatric ward, compressed to a 75-minute war of nerves between two patients and two staff members. It is written from desperate personal experience. No outsider could fake a line (from a rapist killer) like: 'For a moment I had to hurt her; there was nowhere else for the pain to go.' The piece conveys no sense of an institution, and its slender action turns on an implausibility. But in these mean times, it is good to find a director, Deborah Paige, still prepared to launch an imperfect work by a growing writer with something urgent to say.

In response to my statement (21 November) that Peter Brook began his career 'with the power of the Brooklax laxative fortune behind him', he writes to point out that there never was a fortune in this small family business. My apologies.

'Great Highway', Gate, 071-229 0706. 'Derby Day', Cockpit, 071- 402 5081. 'Julius Caesar', Shaw, 071-388 1394. 'Wild Things', Salisbury Playhouse, 0722 320333.