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THEATRE / Restyled Sweeney is a cut above

THE KNIVES have been out this week as those two well-known carvers, Sweeney Todd and Shylock, step forward to join the queue of villains claiming victim status. Both seek to incriminate the spectator as well: and as David Calder fixes the Royal Shakespeare Theatre audience with a last baleful glare, you sense that the destitute Shylock may after all have a thriving future ahead as the Demon Barber of the Rialto.

The same goes for Sweeney himself in Declan Donnellan's magnificent revival of the Sondheim/Hugh Wheeler musical. It has been awaiting rediscovery ever since its abortive Drury Lane premiere of 1980. Serial murder then was not quite the box-office draw it has since become: but what scuppered Harold Prince's production, with its views of the Thames and social diagrams of the 'British Beehive', was that it treated Londoners as tourists in their own city. The decor is in the music: two bell-like chords, and everything is there from Dick Whittington to Jack the Ripper.

At the Cottesloe, the piece is reborn as a chamber opera, with minimal design and an orchestra reduced to nine (mainly wind) players. Gone are the audience- dominating tactics of Broadway; and in their place a lean, purposeful music drama in which every line is exposed. This is no help to the romantic numbers, which need feather-bedding. But from the opening ballad, its semitone triplets whirring like a fatal clock, the music both drives the action along and characterises it with malign echoes of nursery rhymes, London street cries, and the dies irae. For all the borrowings, it is music that belongs to this show alone; you can almost taste it.

The first contrast with the overdecorated and underpopulated Drury Lane version is Donnellan's transformation of the chorus into the environment. At the start they are a crowd at twilight, each hurrying to his own destination and cutting across each others' tracks as if the whole London A-Z were superimposed on the stage. Later they change into bystanders for the shaving contest, greedy diners packing Mrs Lovett's pie- shop (while Sweeney, above, keeps up the delivery of fresh meat), and inmates of Fogg's madhouse. But they are at their most potent as mute witnesses, watching from the shadows and closing in at moments of horror.

Wheeler's plot (adapted from Christopher Bond) concerns an avenging hero who flips into declaring war on the human race. It has Jacobean tragedy, 19th-century melodrama and Brechtian parable; but Donnellan puts it over as a devastating response to the Broadway cult of camp Victoriana. It is certainly popular theatre; and some numbers, like the frolicsome cannibal duet, remain deliberate camp jokes. Otherwise, it is there to wipe the grin off your face. Mrs Lovett is supposed to offer light relief; but as Julia McKenzie plays her (with marvellous control of the comic rhythms), it is her capacity for humdrum compromise and blinkered respectability, fussing round her parlour with green smoke issuing from her chimney, that chills the blood.

Hers is by far the best voice in the company (seconded by Nick Holder as a bel canto Pirelli). But the sweetest singing comes from Alun Armstrong's Sweeney - an obsessive outcast with no Monte Cristo flourishes - in the love song to his long-lost box of razors. Denis Quilley, the Drury Lane Sweeney, reappears as a gravely dignified Judge Turpin, whose hawk-like profile then amazingly contorts into the grimaces of a self-flagellating voyeur and

Guignol monster. Also look out for Barry James, a Beadle Dickens would have been proud of.

'He saw how cultured men behave / He never forgot and he never forgave.' Sondheim's chorus applies equally to Mr Calder's Shylock. The role is relatively short, but in David Thacker's modern-dress production The Merchant of Venice belongs to Shylock. Belmont hardly exists; Venice dominates the stage, in the form of Shelagh Keegan's steel and marble futures office, where Antonio (Clifford Rose) first appears at lunch with two pretty young dealers, before visiting Shylock in his hi-tech lair.

Genial, shrewd and totally lacking in Hebraic trademarks, Calder's performance picks up from where Olivier's Edwardian Shylock stopped. This Jew is indistinguishable from any other Western businessman: and the line of the production is that it is only the loss of Jessica that drives him into vengeance. Like Sweeney, he is seen going round the twist as a pandemonium of rock music violates his sober house and bestially-masked revellers mock the frantically searching father. Calder brings humour, poignancy, and the true note of distracted grief to this account of the character; and it is a pity for this, as for previous apologies for Shylock, that he punctures it by declaring his anti-Christian loathing in his opening scene.

There remains much to admire in the show: not least Penny Downie's change from a statuesque Portia into a hot-shot lawyer, Mark Lockyer's even more startling transformation of Gratiano from a coarse chauvinist into the office laughing boy; and the sight of Antonio recoiling in gibbering terror from the knife.

Still on the RSC Rialto comes Goldoni's The Venetian Twins which opens with a brass band and washing lines - typically heralding a Michael Bogdanov production which continues with unscheduled events, including the accidental slaughter of a spectator, momentarily halting the show for police and ambulancemen.

Goldoni's twins - one a good- natured buffoon, the other a courageous narcissist - both arrive in Verona on the trail of love and marriage, and proceed to get their lines crossed for the rest of the play. It is a tremendous energy show, involving David Troughton in superhuman displays of instantaneous doubling in the title roles. Add a production style that yanks the audience into the action, and redoubles Goldoni's gags by making fun of the commedia conventions, and you will imagine a laugh riot. Up to a point, so it is. Then one of the twins takes

poison and dies; and a cold wind sweeps the carnival into oblivion. Not for nothing was Goldoni a compatriot of Pirandello.

A brief but ardent welcome to Philip Osment's The Dearly Beloved, in which a tight little Welsh community is disrupted by jealousy and discontent at the homecoming of a local celebrity (Peter Wight, heading Mike Alfreds's excellent company). There is a death in the play; but what it mainly, and truthfully, dramatises is the dismay of minutely individualised characters at how their lives have worked out. Since the 1950s there has been a moritorium on plays in the Chekhov manner. It is time the ban was lifted.

'Sweeney Todd': Cottesloe (071-928 2252). 'The Merchant of Venice': Royal Shakespeare, Stratford (0789 295623). 'Venetian Twins': Swan, Stratford (0789 295623). 'Dearly Beloved': Hampstead (071-722 9301).