Theatre: Sophocles among the slaves

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The Independent Culture
The Darker Face of the Earth

Cottesloe, London

Forbidden Broadway

Albery, London

I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change

Comedy, London

Rules are broken, the gods are angry, disaster is unavoidable. Greek tragedy provides a tried-and-tested template for writers who wish to look anew at the intractability of cultural divisions. And poets seem inexorably drawn to the rewriting - or not - of fate. Seamus Heaney and Tom Paulin have traced the origins of violence and tribalism in Ireland to Troy and Thebes. Now, in the UK premiere of Rita Dove's , the tragedy of Oedipus is set in motion in pre-Civil War South Carolina.

The opening scene, played out behind a tented net while the audience peer in from all four sides of the sunken Cottesloe stage, is itself something of a lesson in overstepping boundaries. Poets - even Pulitzer prize-winning, former US laureates - do not necessarily good dramatists make: Dove's writing is ambitious, but tangled.

Amalia Jennings (Saskia Reeves), a plantation owner, has given birth to a child fathered by one of her slaves. While she cradles her bundle on the bed, the slaves congregate expectantly outside, and Hector, the father, is in anguish on the porch. Amalia's husband Louis (Phillip Joseph) retreats, disgusted and vengeful, to his room; the good doctor suggests that the mixed-race bastard should be sold.

The portent-wary black females and pragmatically ruthless white males deliver Dove's lyrical lines fast and furiously. Scattershot statements about past, present and future rebound around the congested space. Reeves's and Joseph's intonation seems to mutate into something more South Park than Deep South. It is just as well that this is "an old story" - as Augustus, the expelled-son-turned-avenger points out to Louis 20 years later, believing him to be his rapist-father, then killing him - or the plot may have already been lost.

Once the prologue has been dispensed with, however, the play and the excellent company settle, and James Kerr's precise production opens out. The dynamics of the slaves' commonality and conflicts rise to the surface; their proscribed dreams are elegaically sketched out.

Then Augustus Newcastle (Peter de Jersey) somehow finds his way home. Educated by an indulgent slave-trader, then sold back into bondage on his master's death, he is a poet and a rebel. Poised, seething and magnetic, he turns the heads and opens the minds of the slaves. He pledges his energies to a band of Scripture-quoting revolutionaries and resolves to overthrow the established order.

Soon he is discussing literature with the time-hardened Amalia. The Greeks are "a bit too predictable", he tells her, before forgetting that he's Oedipus and bedding her. Head and heart, private and political, collide in the mixed-up emotions, motivations and make-up of Augustus. Tragedy is his release.

As a historical interpretation of a shameful era, Dove's play is judicious and sorrowful. As an allegory on the road that radical race relations must still travel, its message is formidable. But as for dramatic tension, there was always going to be a problem. It may not have been said so beautifully, but it has all been seen before.

Following a sell-out three months at the tiny Jermyn Street Theatre - and constant updating over 18 years in the heart of its spiritual home - Forbidden Broadway has transferred to the West End. It's a winning formula: a series of spot-on spoofs of musicals - some long gone, others never-ending - interspersed with wicked impersonations of grandes dames (Ethel Merman, Liza Minnelli) and diminutive divas (Elaine Paige).

The whirlwind tour is a must for love-haters of the genre, with plenty of in-jokes for the initiated. Even those who have steered clear of the blockbusting box offices will have their aversions confirmed as "Cameron Mackintosh" sings "These are a Few of My Souvenir Things" while producing logo-plastered trinkets from a cape.

A Cats audition piece, a hilarious mini-Les Mis, complete with a pretend revolving stage, a singalonga-Sondheim-if-you-can tongue-twister, and a couple of Disney diatribes are tackled by the four talented performers and, as with all pastiches, there's genuine affection for the tradition which they mock.

I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change won't be receiving such a backhanded compliment. A hit across the States and in Toronto and Melbourne, it's a sequence of musical sketches on dating and mating, New York style. Or rather, pre-Sex and the City style.

It spins out Men are from Mars ... banalities into overwrought set-pieces, and forces a decent British cast into excruciating cod-confessionalism. It's also hampered by unmemorable tunes. Somehow Ally McBeal seems like she has a profound and complex inner life after all.

`': Cottesloe, SE1 (0171 452 3000), in rep to 11 November; `Forbidden Broadway': Albery, WC2 (0171 369 1740), to 4 September; `I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change': Comedy, SW1 (0171 369 1731), to 8 October

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