THEATRE / Swimming against the current: Paul Taylor on Groping for Trouts . . . at BAC

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The Independent Culture
GROPING for Trouts in a Peculiar River quickly becomes more a case of groping for some sense in a peculiar play. The catchy title is a line from Measure for Measure, where it crops up as a not-so-euphemistic euphemism for Claudio's fornication with Juliet ('peculiar' then having the sense of 'private'). Co-opted as a label for what the Sturdy Beggars have in store for us, these trouts are a bit of a red herring.

Shakespeare's great problem comedy - about the puritanical Deputy who succumbs to the very temptation for which he's condemned another man to death - is studiedly perplexing thanks to the weird behaviour of the 'Duke of Dark Corners'. This dignitary not only offloads the thankless task of cleaning up debauched society on to a man he also wants to expose as a hypocrite, but he steers the whole play to a comic conclusion that evades most of the moral complexities that have been raised.

Hardly surprising, then, that this work should have provoked a rash of counter-plays by, among others, Brenton and Brecht. This latter predictably swapped the psychological and religious motivation in the Shakespeare for a socio-economic imperative, so that Isabella, for example, caves in to Angelo's corrupt ultimatum because she would be pauperised by her brother's death.

Stephen Jameson's adaptation doesn't have anything quite so systematic in view. It keeps the two great confrontations between Angelo and Isabella virtually intact, with Richard Attlee, as the scheming Deputy, giving a more than respectable exhibition of repression overpowered by lust. The rest of this version can't make up its mind what it wants to be. Parts come across as a larky undergraduate skit of the original; parts sound like straight-faced social criticism.

The proceedings have been shifted to a near-future England, with the Duke / King (Michael Woodwood) abdicating and retiring (it is thought) for chemotherapy in the Alps. It would be the labour of a lifetime to set out all the incoherences that flow from this, but here are a few. Parliamentary democracy, for example, would appear to have broken down, since there's nothing to stop Angelo from personally resurrecting a medieval law against fornication.

Claudio is selected as scapegoat, because he's (wrongly) assumed to be HIV positive, but the risk of Aids seems to cross no one's mind when discussing whether Isabella should agree to have sex to win him a reprieve (a dilemma still presented as an abstract religious one). Indeed, when she refuses, her brother charmingly wishes that his saliva was Aids-infected so that he could 'spit damnation in (her) face'. As for the Duke, it's something of a puzzle that, even though his profile is on every stamp, he can still swan around London unrecognised.

There are moments in the brothel and prison scenes where the writing, acting and Jonas Finlay's direction acquire a touch of inspired lunacy, though the whole issue of race in the city scenario sketched in here is serenely by- passed. It turns out that Mariana was dumped by the Deputy when her Robert Maxwell-like father was exposed. A joke-figure for most of her stage time, she's suddenly given a fervent, serious speech about the Holocaust, before being strangled to death by Angelo. Ridiculous and much less disturbing than Shakespeare's conclusion, the bloodbath ending won't entirely surprise those who notice the Provost is called Mole.

To 18 July at BAC, London SW11 (071-223 2223)