THEATRE : Take the Bard with a pinch of snuff

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
BARDOLATORS have never had an easy time with Titus Andronicus, which around 1600 was the hottest show in town. Hands are lopped, heads removed, and bodies pile up at a dizzy pace; in this prentice work, the writing is clumsy, the plot risibly crude. War-hero Titus publicly executes the oldest son of a captive princess, who then marries his son and wreaks gory havoc. Her secret paramour Aaron has a gory agenda of his own: he is the embodiment of motiveless evil, and - with a symbolism repeatedly underlined - he is black.

This Grand Guignol gives rise to some wonderful lines, my favourite being Titus's answer to his daughter-in-law when she asks where her remaining sons are. Pointing to the dish she is tucking into, the hero replies, "Why, there they are, both baked in this pie!" She vomits, Titus stabs her, Saturninus stabs Titus, Lucius stabs Saturninus - all in the twinkling of an eye. Titus Andronicus may contain the seeds of Lear, Edmund and Richard III, but it really is a pig of a play.

But it also carries a message about cycles of violence. That is what powers the unprecedented collaboration between the National Theatre Studio and the Market Theatre of Johannesburg, whose results were unveiled at the West Yorkshire Playhouse last week, before their move to the Cottesloe. With Antony Sher in the title role - celebrating his rediscovered South African roots - the polyglot cast transport the action to a township where, spurred on by a steel band, it unfolds in murky half-light.

The horrors are delicately done. When Titus's daughter gets her hands cut off and her tongue cut out, the effect is balletically stylised. Under Greg Doran's direction, and with Dorothy Ann Gould and Jennifer Woodburne in the main female roles, this charismatic company make powerful sense out of Shakespeare's snuff-movie.

But this is not the implicit paean to black pride which some have claimed (Aaron risking all to save his bastard son), nor are South African speech- rhythms suited to Elizabethan English (as has also been alleged). If Shake- speare's English is a foreign language to present-day Britons - not even the RSC can cope with it - it must be doubly so to present-day South Africans. Watching these talented actors struggling with the verse, I had a heretical thought: if they want their message to reach beyond the ranks of the cognoscenti, why not ditch the text and replace it with a contemporary version of their own?

Sher himself was a curious disappointment. There was nothing imperial about him at the outset, no sense of the warrior's hard centre. Driven mad by grief, he switched into Lear-mode, but with barely a hint of pathos. Watching him don a chef's hat and apron before serving his cannibal- dish, I found myself doing an extraordinary double-take. In voice, gesture, and aspect, this was Spike Milligan to a T.

Bold experiments like this, however, are what keeps theatre alive, with inspired revivals being the necessary complement. Richard Cottrell's production of The School for Scandal seems perfectly in place amid the rolling lawns of Chichester, complete with local adjustments to the text, and with the prologue tickled up with topicalities in the manner of the "Little List" song in The Mikado. Sheridan's comedy is a joyful denun- ciation of newspaper gossip: as Tim Goodchild's set proclaims - with its festooned cuttings about Mellor, Aitken, Maxwell and Grant - some things never change.

But it's also a comedy about the revenge which age takes on youth: if age can't repossess youth by marrying it (Sir Peter Teazle and his flighty young wife), it neutralises it (as Lady Sneerwell does). Under Cottrell's lucid direction, this deeply human piece is shown to have much in common with Les Liaisons Dangereuses, written five years later.

Ian Carmichael's Teazle may lack the robust charm required to reconcile his bride to her fate, but Honor Blackman's Sneerwell breathes brimstone, and is abetted by an exhilarating Crabtree-Backbite double-act. Richard Garnett turns Joseph Surface into a younger version of Dickens's Pecksniff, while Dinsdale Landen (Sir Oliver Surface) works wonders with the fine art of the aside. Abigail McKern makes such a mesmerising Lady Teazle that you look nowhere else - unless the incomparable Dora Bryan (Mrs Candour) happens to be on stage.

Stars? Duncan Weldon, the impresario responsible for Chichester's season, never casts a play without one. But in persuading Julie Christie to join a revival of Pinter's Old Times he's had less luck. Christie spends the entire evening curled up on a sofa with a seraphic smile, which seems to me a misreading of her part.

A vibrant figure from the past (Harriet Walter) fetches up on the shore of a washed-up marriage. The ensuing orgy of reminiscence is permeated by the slavering sexual interest guest and husband take in the wife. Under Lindy Davies's sluggish direction, their joint fantasies of bathing her come across as mild smut, which the audience - after devoutly guffawing at rib-ticklers like "We rarely go to London" and "Do you drink brandy?" - falls on with delight.

The play is an opaque miniature whose characters are groping in the dark, mystified by the world without, and by the world inside their heads. The humour should be bleak, anorexic, shot through with pathos. This exercise is so banal, so drably tasteful, that one longs for those bathtime fantasies to be done for real: honest vulgarity would be a relief.

At the Lyttelton, Richard Eyre has worked wonders with a forgotten gem by Eduardo de Filippo called La Grand Magia. A rich cuckold is persuaded by a touring hypnotist that his errant wife has been transferred to a little box: longing to open it, but terrified it might be empty, his will is frozen. In a dozen different ways, Filippo suggests that while magic feeds off human pain, humans crave it as a salve for the pains of life. For magic, read theatre: it's a perfect parable.

Anthony Ward's designs are bold, beautiful and pull some astonishing tricks. Dominic Muldowney's score and Mark Hen- derson's lighting reinforce the flickering insubstantiality of Filippo's world. Under Eyre's direction, the entire evening becomes a conjuring trick, with Bernard Cribbins's hypnotist the anchor.Surging out of the chiaroscuro of griefs and hopes, Alan Howard presents the husband as a sad sleepwalker. This is a riveting performance and a breathtaking paradox: touching at the start but, as his paranoia deepens, winding up the master of all he surveys. A minor play, but a production that will glow in the memory for years to come.

'Titus Andronicus': Cottesloe, SE1 (0171 928 2252), to Fri; 'Grande Magia': Lyttelton, SE1 (0171 928 2252). 'School for Scandal': Chichester (01243 781312). 'Old Times': Wyndham's, WC2 (0171 369 1736).