THEATRE / She do the police in different voices: Paul Taylor on Fires in the Mirror at the Royal Court and Red Shift's minimal Macbeth

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The Independent Culture
ANNA Deavere Smith is slight and she contains multitudes. But unlike Walt Whitman, she gives the first person pronoun a wide berth. Performance art's answer to the historian Studs Terkel, this American actress goes round the streets with a tape recorder, collects material on specific topics, and then re-enacts what her interviewees have said - complete with gestures, hesitations and fumblings - in collage-like solo shows collectively entitled On the Road: A Search for American Character.

In Fires in the Mirror, the piece now brought to the Royal Court, London, she tackles the rioting in the summer of '91 between the blacks and the Hasidic Jews of the Crown Heights district of Brooklyn - unrest that was sparked off when a car from the Chief Rabbi's speeding motorcade swerved on to the sidewalk fatally crushing a seven-year-old black boy. The driver of this vehicle was removed from the scene in a private Hasidic ambulance. Four hours later, a few blocks away, a young Hasidic scholar visiting from Australia was knifed to death in revenge by a gang of black youths. There then followed three days of neighbourhood violence, reckoned to be the worst America had witnessed since the Sixties.

In an effort to throw light on this community and on the issues surrounding the discord, Smith portrays 26 people over 90 minutes - from the swollenly self-important Civil Rights activist, the Reverend Al Sharpton to the decent, troubled men on the Crown Heights youth collective; from a Hasidic lady bemoaning her mandatory wig to a black History of Consciousness professor who argues, in pedantic sing-song, that racism (a colonialist construct) led to the concept of race, not vice versa. The value judgements in this paragraph are mine not Smith's, since her views are left out of the picture. It's hard to see, though, how she can claim to be a neutral 'repeater' when there is such a strong element of impersonation in her performance. This inevitably creates an impression (whether favourable or otherwise), which Smith must be aware of managing.

Certainly, there's no attempt to adjudicate on any of the questions arising from the riots (on, say, the Hasidic community allowing the driver to escape to Israel) or on matters of interpretation regarding the initial incidents (did the knifed scholar die through medical negligence?). Instead, the whole affair is filtered through individual subjectivities in a way that brings home how depressingly high are the odds stacked against either community consenting to see the world from the other's point of view. The identity of each group, we gather, is strongly vested in its memorial persecution: slavery, the Holocaust. But instead of arousing fellow-feeling, this similarity can be the cause of unedifying rivalry over whose ancestral pain is greater. 'The Jews are masquerading in our garments,' thunders a black Muslim minister, who makes the Holocaust sound like a minor graze. 'We are the Chosen People]' No wonder there's mutual paranoia about preferential treatment from the City.

Ms Smith gives a very accomplished performance, though there are a number of times when I would have preferred to see the actual people talking on film. (I began to hope that in her next project, which is on the Los Angeles riots, she will include in the line-up of testifiers the sort of person who goes round making solo theatre pieces out of such events). It was only with her moving and dignified portrayal of the dead boy's shattered father, at the end, that I properly recognised the emotional and political force of one performer endeavouring to transcend division by speaking for everybody.

It cuts down on the acting budget, too, a feat Red Shift is trying to pull off at present with a modern-dress Macbeth played by a cast of just five on a shifting M-shaped set. To achieve this reduction, director Jonathan Holloway has cut out the Weird Sisters and in so doing, alas, has eviscerated the play. If you remove the witches' equivocal, tempting prophecies and present Macbeth as a man whose ambition does not need this incitement to turn bloody, you uncomplicate his psychology to the point of making him a melodramatic villain. Appropriately, Alastair Cording in the title role looks like someone you might cast as one of the hired murderers in Richard III. At the start, he and Lady Macbeth (Beatrice Comins) appear to be burying a child, but you can't believe that childlessness would gnaw at this Macbeth. He'd just get a new wife. The gutted version of the play used here loses both tension and coherence. As Macduff says: 'Confusion now hath made his masterpiece]'

'Fires in the Mirror' is at the Royal Court, London SW1, to 3 April (071-730 1745); 'Macbeth' is at BAC, London SW11, to 18 April (071-223 2223).