Theatre Review by Robert Hanks

the makropulos secret / the white scourge Chelsea Centre, London
Click to follow
Since everybody's busy reviving neglected European classics these days, it's surprising that nobody has got around to the Czech writer Karel Capek before now. His reputation is hampered, perhaps, by the fact that the only thing most people remember about him is that he gave the world the word "robot", in his 1920 play RUR; and by the fact that most of his work functions on the level of fable - morality tales based on ingenious ideas (a race of mechanical men; a huge drama of war and peace in the insect world that ends when a tramp steps on the protagonists). He doesn't offer much in the way of complexity of character or language. But the apparent simplicity is deceptive: he uses plain means to get across difficult messages.

Sadly, the productions opening the Chelsea Centre's ambitious season of his work both fall for the deception. The Makropulos Secret (1922) is one of Capek's better-known works, mostly because it provided the basis for a Janacek opera. The plot concerns an opera-singer, Emilia Marty, who has a mysterious knowledge of events relating to a Jarndyce vs Jarndyce- style law-suit - events which took place 100 years ago. Since many people will already know the story from the opera, and since it isn't very hard to guess anyway, it may as well be revealed here that her secret is a formula that grants enormous longevity - Marty is 337 years old. Long life and happiness don't go together, though. She has gone beyond boredom to a condition for which there is no name; she believes in nothing, loves nothing, has no pleasure, no real feeling - when she hears that a young man has killed himself for love of her, she carries on brushing her hair.

Immortality is not a new idea; but few writers have treated it with the imaginative intelligence that Capek brings to bear. Sadly, he rarely finds the eloquence to match up to the richness of his ideas, so that there is always a danger that his plays will degenerate into plodding exchanges of dialectic; and this is what happens in Francis Alexander's production. The low-key, semi-naturalistic style he adopts seems to make Capek a natural ally of Patrick Hamilton, rather than a contemporary of Kafka and a predecessor of Havel. The cast are excellent within these limitations; but the production fails to find a way of conveying the extraordinary intensity of emotion involved, so that in the end it just feels like an exercise in theatrical archaeology.

The White Scourge is a lesser play - written in 1937, the year before Hitler's invasion of Czechoslovakia (and Capek's own death), it tells of a plague which kills everybody over 40. One doctor knows how to cure it; but he will only release his cure if the world will give up war. The country's military dictator refuses to listen; but then he gets the plague himself.

As allegory, this is hardly sophisticated - we're in the same moral universe as Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator. But there is a vein of powerful imagery running through the play - the numbness that afflicts the plague's victims; the dictator's dream of having his body carried into battle on a white horse - that puts it closer to the surrealism of Victor Ullmann's The Emperor of Atlantis, the anti-war opera he wrote in the Terezin concentration camp. Caroline Gardiner's production isn't as smooth running as it could be, but it does hint at the play's depths. Still, it manages only to show the play as a fable and not, as it could be, fabulous.

n `The Makropulos Secret' in rep to 20 Oct; `The White Scourge' in rep to 21 Oct. Booking: 0171-352 1967