THEATRE : Rushdie - lost at sea

Haroun / Reiteach On tour
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The Independent Culture
Having last year successfully tackled Iain Banks's complex novel The Bridge, Benchtours have turned their attention to Salman Rushdie's anti-censorship fable Haroun and the Sea of Stories, in a touring production which opened at Edinburgh's Traverse last week.

The story concerns a young boy, Haroun, whose struggle to restore his father Rashid's famed storytelling powers (he is the Shah of Blah) develops into a frightening confrontation with the evil dictator Khattam-Shud, a man who stitches up the mouths of his citizens and is trying to poison the sea from which all the world's stories emanate. Like Rushdie, Benchtours believe that Haroun should appeal to both children and adults, but bridging this "audience gap" proves more difficult on the stage than on the page.

This is principally a question of performance style. From the opening scenes in a city "so sad it's forgotten its name" the production's tone is out of key with its story. With a breezy twinkle in their collective eye and busy ensemble gesture-work, the cast are too preoccupied with enchanting their audience by being "enchanting"; in short, by trying too hard to be liked rather than cultivating the delicate suspension of disbelief that characterises effective children's drama.

In the pantomimic cameos and episodes that litter the narrative, this dissonance recedes, Peter Clerke and Catherine Gillard in particular displaying real comic versatility. Peter Livingstone's upbeat Eastern-flavoured music gives John Cobb's direction a powerful backbeat, and his cross-dressed characterisation of Mrs Sengupta is one of the show's delights.

One of the other reasons for Haroun's stylistic incoherence is that, unlike The Bridge, the production has been devised by the company without the controlling vision of a single adapter (A L Kennedy, who was authorised to carry out the adaptation, subsequently disowned the production). The result is that Rushdie's eclecticism, with its acknowledged influences from the Wizard of Oz through Gulliver's Travels to Alice in Wonderland, seems merely messy.

The production achieves a real air of menace towards the end, when Haroun finally comes face-to-face with the Ayatollah-like Khattam-Shud, but by then it's too late. One would have thought that Rushdie's fantastic tale would be ideal material for a company with a reputation for inventive, visual storytelling. Unfortunately, Benchtours do not so much bridge the "audience gap" as fall between two stools which, given the resonance of Rushdie's tale, is sad indeed.

As a non-Gaelic speaker, I cannot pretend to have fully appreciated Drama na h-Alba's production of Reiteach ("Engagement") by John Murray, but an English synopsis and snatches of English dialogue allowed me close enough to distinguish an intriguing cross-cultural love story with two strong performances from Donna Macleod and Domhnall Ruadh at its heart. And the warmth with which Reiteach was received at the St Bride's Centre in Edinburgh bodes very well for its tour of the Highlands and Islands.

`Haroun and the Sea of Stories'. Details: 031-225 4651

`Reiteach': tour details available on 0851-704493