Theatre: That impressionable age

Aunt Dan And Lemon Almeida, London

MIRANDA RICHARDSON makes rare, but always striking, forays on to the English stage these days. One of her most recent appearances was as a professor's daughter at the National in Wallace Shawn's The Designated Mourner, a paranoid, apocalyptic vision of an America where the elite has been overthrown in a violent uprising, prompting the query: how, in such circumstances, would the previous wealth-buttressed cultural values survive, if at all?

Richardson returns now, bringing her disturbed authority and troubling translucence to Tom Cairns's creepily compelling revival of a 1985 play by Shawn, Aunt Dan and Lemon. The drama focuses on the warping relationship between a susceptible young girl, Lemon, and Aunt Dan (commandingly played by Richardson), who was a charismatic right-wing American friend of her parents, and an Oxford don.

The piece is cast as a memory with Lemon, now a listless, sickly solitary, subsisting on a meagre private income, viewing scenes from her own childhood like some wraith-like outsider or, in the case of Dan's independent past, like a confused tourist. The proceedings include a lengthy defence of the Vietnam policies of Henry Kissinger, delivered with a God-give-me- patience incredulity at anyone who cannot see what a selfless angel he is in agreeing to use force to save the rest of the population from doing so.

The piece ends, after Dan's death, with Lemon, in a quietly deranged echo of her twisted logic, defending the Nazis' extermination of Jews to the audience. The only essential difference between the Nazis and other people is that the former didn't fool themselves with any fantasies about compassion.

The questions the play concerns itself with are: What draws intellectuals to extreme right-wing positions, and why is it easier for the right to seduce the public by appearing more ruthlessly "honest" with themselves than liberals? Exploring these issues, the play exerts a powerful grip and Cairns's active production is highly skilful.

Finally, though, Shawn's constitutional inability to think in anything but melodramatic extremes leaves me dissatisfied with both the argument and the drama, which is over-dependent on monologue. The Dans of this world are, to my mind, less fascinating than those harder cases, like John Updike, who, nothing if not sensitive, found themselves supporting the Vietnam War, as he has revealed in his memoirs, Self-Consciousness. There is a brilliant work about the malign effects on young minds of a charismatic Fascist teacher but it's not Aunt Dan - it's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

Paul Taylor

A version of this review appeared in later editions of yesterday's paper

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