THEATRE / Sam Shepard: the comeback: States of Shock - Salisbury Playhouse; The Merry Wives - City Hall, Hull and touring the North of England; Present Laughter - Globe

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The Independent Culture
NOT MUCH has been heard lately of the once dizzyingly productive Sam Shepard, and the news of his comeback with a piece about the Gulf war sounded more like a death-rattle than a new lease of life. We have our own gloomy experience of once fertile writers who now put politics where their imaginations used to be. In Shepard's case, this fear turns out to be groundless.

Although it features two combat veterans, States of Shock takes the war only as its starting point, from which it develops with all the old rhapsodic energy of this rock drummer turned dramatist. The first clue to what the piece is about comes from Lucy Hall's opening design of two blanched, corpse-like diners sitting under a tightly stretched membrane against which shredded photographs have been blown like dead leaves, rustling and vibrating in sympathy with spasmodic lighting and the rhythms of bombardment. It could be a tent in the desert. It could be an image of the jittery United States womb, where gas masks were being sold on the streets during the war.

Enter the Colonel, in battledress and medals, pushing Private Stubbs in a wheelchair. Stubbs has been mutilated in a failed attempt to save the son of the Colonel, who is now celebrating this act of heroism by taking him out for a slice of pie in a coffee shop. Stubbs ignores him and addresses his first words - 'It went clean through me]' - to the two other diners, who, in turn, ignore him. They have not yet been served and suspect the Desert Storm arrivals of queue-jumping: as the woman hisses venomously to her husband, 'We could be buying things, as we speak.'

All Shepard is doing is to connect usually separated experiences, much as Arrabal did in Picnic on the Battlefield. But such is his theatrical gift that the event develops beyond derisive comedy and acquires a life of its own in which desert crossfire and dinner-table bickering coalesce in portraying the same America. 'Without the enemy we're nothing. I miss the Cold War with all my heart'; from West Point to Bloomingdales, that is what holds them all together. What emerges from Deborah Paige's lucid production (in fruitful association with the National Theatre Studio) is a magic-realist narrative, periodically crystallising into alarming stage pictures, such as the arrival of the candlelit cream pies amid blackout gunfire, and the righteously indignant Colonel tipping the crippled boy on to the floor and assaulting him with a belt.

This, alas, brings us to Shepard's plot. It begins on a note of unexplained guilt. What is the Colonel's secret? In David Burke's performance, this top-brass specimen is jangling with loose screws: sometimes the genial host, then executing vertical take-offs into patriotic rant, barking orders, abasing himself, and driven to frenzy by Stubbs's refusal to play toy soldiers with him. Why? Evidently because he abandoned Stubbs on the battlefield, and is desperate to re-enact the event so as to compel the boy to accept his version of what happened. What did happen never comes to light, as the play then switches into the mode of Arthur Miller's All My Sons, with Stubbs taking over the vacant filial role, and miraculously regaining his potency with the help of the coffee shop waitress. Although Corey Johnson simmers through the whole show in preparation for this moment, there is no hiding the falseness of the ending, which brazenly converts a physical into a psychic wound, and shows the young hero towering over his repressive parent with an Oedipally drawn sword. Still, Shepard lives.

With offhand references to bilberries and the West Riding, and tables groaning under crates of Theakston's Old Peculier (a staunch sponsor), Northern Broadsides' version of The Merry Wives has left Windsor far behind. Last week the show was playing in the company's birthplace, Salt's Mill, Bradford, in the longest mill room in Europe, where Ford's search party could go rampaging through the house until they dwindled into the far distance, from whence Barrie Rutter's Falstaff appeared like a gate-crashing Arab until he arrived for the post-ducking scene with a towel over his head.

Moving the play here means junking its social hierarchy. There is no sense of courtiers dallying with the gentry, either from Falstaff or from Andy Wear's grammar school Fenton. Also, some of the supporting parts are too blankly played for any detailed community to take shape. So much for conscientious quibbles.

What Rutter's production does offer is a great blast of Yorkshire vitality that fans the main scenes into a comic bonfire. Drink is important, from the boozy cacklers in the on-stage Garter, to its Host (Conrad Nelson) taking over the bar in the interval. So is the rebellion of Falstaff's moth-eaten followers under Peter O'Farrell's superannuated teddy boy Pistol. But the real mainspring consists of a mass charge of pugnacious, downright Northern womanhood led by Elizabeth Estensen and Polly Hemingway, typically seen pummelling the weekly wash on top of Falstaff and finishing the job with a good bounce and a well-placed kick.

The usual ingratiating Falstaff would not survive five minutes in this company; and Rutter - a blazered chancer from the world of wine lodges and car dumps - is an irascible bully with a greedy eye that lights up no less at the sight of Ford's suitcase of Monopoly money than at the glimpse of his sexual prey. Whether soft- soaping Ford, browbeating creditors, or gibbering with panic when the search party arrive, he deserves everything coming to him. Here, for once, is a Falstaff in no way inferior to that of Henry IV.

The role of Gary Essendine, the self-dramatising star hero of Noel Coward's Present Laughter, leaves plenty of scope for individual skills. Coward himself specialised in the witty emptying of ashtrays; Nigel Patrick conducted an invisible orchestra and did conjuring tricks; Albert Finney made love to the mirror. Tom Conti, playing the lead in his own production, goes in for joke voices - some of them very funny. But the fun is at the play's expense. Alone among Coward roles, Garry is a critical self-portrait, exhibiting extravagant narcissism and self-pity alongside his commanding hauteur. The whole point of the plot is that he is not always in control; and it is at these moments that Conti evades by switching on the joke voices. The character is not there. What we see, as in Miller's The Ride Down Mt Morgan two years ago, is an actor of devastating charm who never for a moment is going to let you forget it.

Otherwise the show offers a nicely acid portrait by Gabrielle Drake of Gary's secretary, spot-on changes between the servile and old mates routine by Martin Sadler as his valet, and the disgracefully rewritten role of his go-getting mistress (into cartoon Russian), with which Jenny Seagrove copes as well as she may.

'States of Shock': Salisbury Playhouse (0722 320333). 'The Merry Wives': City Hall, Hull (0482 226655), and touring the North of England. 'Present Laughter': Globe (071-494 5065).

(Photograph omitted)