THEATRE / Star-studded cast, shame about the show

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The Independent Culture
'TRULY, I live in dark times]' reads Vanessa Redgrave in a low, cracked voice from an old book in which the page has been marked with a large daisy. The simplicity of her recital and this foible of the flower are unexpectedly moving, revealing both honesty and affectation. Later, Redgrave dons tap-shoes and dances - appallingly - to the songs of Brecht and Weill with a look of the purest, most defiant happiness on her face. Brecht in Hollywood is a deeply eccentric enterprise.

The title of this devised piece is misleading. It suggests a drama based on real life (the Brechts moved to Hollywood in 1941) that would play out the paradoxes of one of the parents of modern theatre arriving in the movie capital of the world. You might expect it to be punctuated with Brecht's songs and fragments of the plays; in fact, the songs and the fragments are all you get.

There is a cast of three performers, all among the most admired of their generation. Ekkehard Schall joined Brecht's Berliner Ensemble in 1952, married Brecht's daughter Barbara and continues an apostolic succession from the great man himself. Rade Serbedzija is a distinguished classical actor from Zagreb who has been exiled by the war in the former Yugoslavia. Goran Stefanovski, the 'author' of the compilation, is a Macedonian playwright, also fleeing the war, who in 1992 wrote the well-intentioned but much-criticised play Sarajevo (Tales from a City). It is as if Vanessa Redgrave, as famous for her political campaigning as for her acting, has gathered around her a broken flock of like minds in response to these dark times.

If they couldn't get around to writing a new play, however, one wishes at times that they had simply staged one of Brecht's. The extracts are frustratingly potted, and the least impressive part of an evening in which the standard is at times insultingly poor: the actors (of this calibre]) unable to remember lines, the staging cheap, the singing variable.

It is the most shameless self-indulgence. And yet there is always a redeeming moment: Serbedzija's immaculate rendition of 'My Brother Was a Pilot' with acoustic guitar; Redgrave as the Jewish wife from Fear and Misery in the Third Reich, furiously grieving as she packs her cases; Schall pressing his rotund form against a chair in a grotesque parody of the Christine Keeler pose while singing the 'Bilbao Song'.

Earlier this year Gitta Sereny's study of the James Bulger case appeared in this paper. Now her book Into That Darkness, interviews with the Treblinka commandant Franz Stangl, has been adapted for the stage by Robert David MacDonald. In the substance of those interviews lies a terrible drama: will Sereny succeed in her stated aim of making Stangl understand and so express his guilt, after years of self-justification and repression? Her steadfast belief that truth can only emerge from an inner need disallows any glib evasions.

MacDonald's play, In Quest of Conscience, can hardly be described as a dramatisation in anything but the most literal sense. Rather, it is a reconstruction of those interviews, with Roberta Taylor as the anguished, tenacious Gitta, MacDonald himself as Stangl and a male and female 'chorus' to keep us informed and play extra characters as they arise. The interview format is a killer in the theatre, but combining it with so theatrical a technique as a chorus seems a last-ditch attempt to convince us that this is theatre and not documentary television.

The whole experience is meagre, like those sketches you see when a trial is in progress. The play depends on the portrayal of Stangl, but MacDonald's performance is oddly dissipated and vague. It leaves one curious to know how the real man behaved, which must mean that as theatre it has failed.

Communicado is a company which has built a reputation on understanding the sensual and intellectual possibilities of theatre. Sacred Hearts is loosely based on the occupation of a church by prostitutes in Lyons in the mid-1970s, in protest at lack of police protection from a 'ripper'. But apart from occasional references to the 'boulanger' or 'the infamous rue Zola', the action is in effect transposed to Scotland by rumbustious colloquial backchat.

'Imagine me, on strike,' marvels the motherly old pro, Jojo. 'I never close]' There is much bawdy humour, and especially from the world of the flesh rubbing up against that of the spirit. The plaster image of the Virgin Mother is a focus for the women's attention: Jojo reverently spits and polishes her, the mothers ruminate on the common ground they share, while their younger colleagues transform her with a red nylon slip into that other Mary, whom they can relate to more easily.

A superb cast furthers Communicado's tradition of ensemble work. They periodically burst into rousing song, or strike vivid tableaux of real life outside the sanctuary of the church. Sue Glover's script allows - or perhaps demands - these interruptions. Plotting is not her strong point, and, especially in the first half, the writing is tinged with didacticism. But when she allows the voices of her characters to speak for themselves, there is no need for either plot or lectures.

'She was above rubies, my mother,' says poor Raymond, who vents his inadequacy on the prostitutes. But when Jojo sits quietly with him, reminding him that the whores are just women, like his own sister or mother even, then Raymond is filled with compassion; as is the young priest after his moving conversation with the volatile Therese; as, in the end, are we.

'Brecht': Bridge Lane (071-228 8828). 'Conscience': Glasgow Citizens (041-429 0022). 'Sacred Hearts': Drill Hall (071-637 8270).

Irving Wardle returns next week.