THEATRE : Sean's other show

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The Independent Culture
FOLLOWING UP three instant Abbey Theatre classics with The Silver Tassie, Sean O'Casey guaranteed his immortality with the most celebrated rejection slip in stage history. By all the rules of romantic justice, the play should then have turned the tables on W B Yeats and the Abbey by emerging as his supreme master-piece; but, instead, its status remains as uncertain now as in 1928.

To Yeats, the play was a write-off by an author who had shed his Dublin roots. But maybe Yeats was stung by the fact that a prose dramatist was now challenging him on his own poetic ground. To Bernard Shaw, the Tassie was "a hell of a play". It proved, Shaw said, that O'Casey's "genius is not limited by frontiers. His plays are wonderfully ... reproachful without being irritating like mine. People fall crying into each other's arms saying, 'God forgive us all!' instead of going to their solicitors for a divorce." But again, maybe Shaw was welcoming the directly heartfelt play on the Great War that he had been unable to write in Heartbreak House. Subsequent productions have done nothing to settle this dispute, and Lynne Parker's is no exception.

Its main achievement is to sever the play's supposed link with the poems of Wilfred Owen. It comes over as a pitiless piece. O'Casey's views on patriotic conflict are summed up in a line from Juno and the Paycock: "You lost your best principle when you lost your arm." When it came to The Silver Tassie he ignored the question of why Irishmen should be fighting for England, and reduc-ed the whole drama to an issue of personal power. Harry Heegan leads his football team to victory and then returns from Flanders paralysed from the waist down. But given his change (in Stuart Graham's roaring performance) from swaggering sexual arrogance to savagely embittered impotence, he doesn't awaken much sympathy. Neither does his mate Teddy (Brendan Coyle) who comes back blinded, when we have first seen him chasing after his wife with a meat cleaver.

One strong impression is that the war offered the boys an escape from the Dublin tenements; and that some of those left behind were glad to see them go. Power reigns in the tenements as in the trenches; and in Kathy Strachan's design, the whole show is framed in images of crucifixion and carnage. You can see the point. The religious and medical bullying of the first and last acts do relate to the idiot military discipline of the central Flanders scene, where the production executes an impressive stylistic jump into a cappella expressionism. But by drawing this parallel, the production also under-lines the play's main inferiority to O'Casey's previous work in which comedy and tragedy are inseparably interwoven. Here they keep their own corners, with the result that the best writing in the play, for the tenement's two old cronies (Pat Laffan and James Greene) comes over as mere comic relief.

Sir Derek Jacobi launches his Chichester regime with a lovely title performance in Peter Luke's Hadrian VII. In this smash hit of the 1960s, Luke combined the private life of Frederick Rolfe with the story of his most famous creation, so as to produce the heady wish-fulfilment fantasy of an impoverished author catapulted into the seat of St Peter. Alec McCowen created the role as a splenetic outcast who is slightly mollified by seeing his dream come true. Jacobi plays it the other way round: as a gentle-natured victim fighting for his life, who instantly expands into spiritual magnanimity once his ship comes in. When he pays off old scores - against the college that expelled him, or a mutinous cardinal (John Savident, deflated with a gratifying hiss) - it is with a twinkle of innocent mischief; the lack of rancour, coupled with his acceptance of supreme authority as his rightful due, makes these scenes funnier than ever. The piece also has its sentimental side, and it never set out to examine either Rolfe or his alter-ego in any depth. Terry Hands's production reconfirms its effectiveness as a star vehicle, along with some fine support playing (James Maxwell, Hel-ena McCarthy) that augurs well for the rest of the season. Hands's eloquent patterns of movement between a golden Vatican interior and a chiaroscuro forestage vindicate his decision to light his own show.

As an admirer of James Stock's recent work, I was dismayed to find Star- Gazy Pie and Sauerkraut to be a rewritten version of his chaotic The Shaming of Bright Millar which appeared in Manchester four years ago. Situated variously in a Cornish fishing village, Hitler's Berlin, and a Victorian house of correction, the piece consists of a three-generation family history haunted by the figure of Bright, a cabin boy on Nelson's Victory who came to a sticky end at the hands of a religious zealot.

Stock is delivering a warning about institutional tampering with natural life, and the dangers of forgetting the past. His method is to lay apparently unrelated scenes side by side, and pile up scarifying details about eugenics, euthanasia, state propaganda, and the catastro-phic effects of powdered baby milk. There are multiple historical ech-oes and parallels, but they do not mesh in with the dramatic events. Some scenes - such as the row in a GP's surgery, or the appearance of Hitler (Robin Soans) as a water- colour painter - are intensely theatrical. There is no faulting the quality of dialogue (especially from Bridget Turner as a Nazi film star turned Cornish recluse). What is lacking is an expressive structure. Stock throws out the material and leaves you to pull it into focus; I emerged from Mark Wing-Davey's production with a headache.

In Jenny McLeod's Victor and the Ladies, the stud hero (Rudolph Walker) tries to recruit an old flame into his stable of five compliant women, only to be struck by lightning. Noisy, ill-plotted and crass.

'Tassie': Almeida, N1, 0171-359 4404. 'Hadrian VII': Chichester, 01243 781312. 'Star-Gazy': Royal Ct, SW1, 0171-730 1745. 'Victor': Tricycle, NW6, 0171-328 1000.

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