Theatre: Skilful hokum

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"MY MOTHER, who is my mother? Out with it!" cries Augustus (Peter de Jersey), the handsome mulatto slave, waving a knife. He has always believed that the mother from whom he was separated at birth was a raped black. In fact, she is the woman he is confronting now - haughty Amalia (Saskia Reeves), the white owner of this very plantation and the mistress with whom he has embarked on a steamy affair.

The Darker Face of the Earth, a verse-play by the accolade-laden Rita Dove, the US's first African-American poet laureate - transfers the tragedy of Oedipus Rex to pre-Civil War South Carolina. A plodding prologue, set some 20 years before the main action, establishes the origins of the drama's time-delay calamity. Persuaded that he will be in danger if she keeps him, Amalia surrenders her newborn mixed-race baby to be raised as a slave elsewhere. The decision hardens her into a bitter taskmistress on the estate.

Sophocles and the miseries of slavery: it sounds like a profound and heady combination; but, I regret to report, I found parts of this hard to view with a straight face. Instead of the inexorable necessity of tragedy, it too often serves up the lurid accidents of melodrama. Dove wants us to see the educated Augustus, who is the product of his mother's hypocritical approach to the black race, as the literal embodiment of conflicting codes. So she engineers a heavily ironic situation in which the hero - torn between love for Amalia and loyalty to a group of black insurrectionists - mistakenly believes that he will be avenging his mother by overthrowing the whites.

But the implied parallel with Greek tragedy merely exposes the garish contrivances in this drama. For example, unlike her counterpart, Jocasta, in Sophocles' play, Amalia has reason to believe that, somewhere in the world, her son survives. So it seems uncircumspect of her to seduce a man of the same age and mixed race as soon as he hoves into view, suggesting not so much a compulsion in the character as a convenience in the play. Amalia obviously hasn't read Oedipus Rex.

Nor are the competing ideologies on the plantation (from primitive superstitions to the nascent liberation theology of the rebels) best dramatised by reference to a mythic drama about a land in the grip of a curse. Dove has spoken about the correspondence between the implacable will of the Gods and the white power structure as it must have seemed to the slaves. But the invoking of a curse confuses rather than clarifies.

Director James Kerr stages the piece beautifully, placing the audience like eavesdroppers on all four sides of the sunken central acting area where the company skilfully evoke the close-knit community. An atmospheric production which flatters highbrow hokum.

In rep until 4 Sept, 0171 452 3000

A version of this review appeared in later editions of Friday's paper