THEATRE / Synthetic mythology - not quite the real thing

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FOR THE Fantastic Francis Hardy, the hero of Brian Friel's The Faith Healer, there is no such thing as professional competence: one day he may set the cripples dancing, the next they may be hurling their crutches at him. He always intends to heal, but sometimes the power is there and sometimes not.

If Frank had been an artist this would hardly have been worth saying; but it applies particularly to Friel himself because he, too, is in the healing business, and because his work presents such a contrast between mastery and mediocrity even when covering the same ground. After Translations, an Anglo-Irish masterpiece, came a bickering family piece, The Communication Cord. Now, after Dancing at Lughnasa, a huge international success, comes Wonderful Tennessee.

Both plays are set in Ballybeg, the imaginary Donegal village which Friel has been revisiting for the past 30 years; both concern the hold of the past over the present and show a group of variously defeated people trying to regain contact with some buried ancestral force.

Thematically, they can be seen as companion pieces, showing similar longings stirring in the village life of the 1930s and in the veins of modern Dubliners who can afford to charter a bus back to the old place and bring hampers of expensive food. The difference is that the first play is a living organism, the sequel a painstakingly assembled artefact.

The bus trip is in honour of Terry, who has brought his wife and two other middle-aged couples along to celebrate his birthday on an offshore island; but, alas, they get no further than Ballybeg pier, and whatever the appeal of Joe Vanek's picturesquely derelict setting, it is no substitute for the arrival of a ferryman. The shade of Godot is being invoked. Like Beckett's tramps, Friel's party tell stories and swap banter to make the time pass; they also go swimming, throw stones, empty the hamper, go beachcombing, and sing old favourites to the accompaniment of a talented accordionist (Robert Black) who is dying of throat cancer. This is a play that exhausts the repertoire of Irish home entertainment. The marooned characters even seem to be having fun, and it is left to the spectator to writhe in exasperation at their wasted outing.

Unlike Godot, Wonderful Tennessee does not transmit the experience of waiting, as its fable is still geared to narrative expectation. This causes frustration in both departments of Patrick Mason's production. Fable decrees that the ferryman shall not appear. Narrative leaves you wondering why they don't go and get him. Characters are supplied with identification tags that lead nowhere. Terry's depressed wife interrupts the opening sing-song by asking him to take her home: what is she depressed about? Why does she never bring up the subject again? You could ask similar questions about all the others,

including Terry (a hunched, strenuously enthusiastic Donal McCann), a bookie or concert promoter to whom the others are obscurely indebted. Then, when fable takes over with a story of a ritual sacrifice on the island, a lady in the party ('You'd never guess my wife teaches Classics]') helpfully steps forward to link Ballybeg's tribal customs with the Eleusinian mysteries. This is synthetic mythology; in Lughnasa Friel was on to the real thing.

The Ireland of At the Black Pig's Dyke, from the Galway Druid Theatre Company, also feels like the real thing. Vincent Woods's title refers to an ancient fortification on the Ulster-Irish border, and a centre of the mumming tradition - doggerel folk dramas performed by smocked troupes in conical straw masks - from which Maeliosa Stafford's production takes its haunting imagery. The straw men, first seen as jovial home entertainers, acquire a sinister ambiguity as their routines engage with a marriage across sectarian lines, and finally move in for the kill in the likeness of Klansmen. Told through fairy- tale, folk-song and dialogue, the piece combines rustic simplicity with the tragic resonance of Lorca's Blood Wedding. Peter Gowen endows the jealous executioner with erotic glamour and a spellbinding voice.

Ireland makes another startling appearance in Shakespeare's Messina, where Don Pedro's shore-going naval companions include a skinny, droopy-moustached, broad Belfast Benedick. I never thought to see the undeflatable hero of Much Ado About Nothing played as a low- status figure: why, if so, should Beatrice have chosen him for target practice in the first place? Even with her vituperation softened to teasing, as in Janet McTeer's lovely performance, there is no answer to that. Mark Rylance, however, makes out an irresistible case for Benedick as a provincial clown. Line after line yields unsuspected comedy. 'Love me? Why?' he asks himself in stunned bewilderment, emerging drenched from a floral arbour where the Prince (Jack Ellis) has been watering him. And what an improvement on the usual heel- clicking gallantries is his soberly reluctant agreement to the duel. Getting his sword in a twist when delivering the challenge, he is graceless integrity incarnate.

This is the main surprise in Matthew Warchus's production; but the whole piece has been rethought from scratch. There are bits of mere directorial mischief, as where the Watch chat to each other on mobile phones. But Warchus goes to the heart of the matter - either in cutting comic dialogue that clogs the dynamics, or drawing a parallel between the Prince and his villainous brother as self-imprisoned egoists who get their kicks manipulating the relationships of others.

Peter Hall's revival of Terence Rattigan's Separate Tables is the kind of show which the founding director of the RSC came on earth to sweep into oblivion. The two linked plays, seeking to uncover the secret lives of the residents of a Bournemouth hotel, contain fleeting moments of insight. 'It has to be the dark, and strangers,' confesses the bogus Major, caught out molesting women in the Odeon. Otherwise opponents of Rattigan on grounds of snobbery and saccharine romance will find their prejudices confirmed. Peter Bowles is well cast as the Major, and sadly miscast as the fallen Labour politician in the first piece; his co-star, Patricia Hodge, scores one out of two in the reverse order. Hall's production affords a clear view of how the wheels go round, while leaving you in the dark as to his motives for exhibiting this piece of antiquated machinery.

'Wonderful Tennessee', Abbey, Dublin, 010 3531 878722. 'At the Black Pig's Dyke', Tricycle, 071-328 1000. 'Much Ado About Nothing', Queen's, 071-494 5041. 'Separate Tables', Albery, 071-867 1115.