THEATRE / The best little whorehouse in Dublin

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The Independent Culture
WHEN Brendan Behan's The Hostage arrived on the London stage in 1958, most spectators shared the opinion of its main character that 'the IRA and the War of Independence are as dead as the Charleston'. Behan by that time was into his fatal role as an Irish clown, better known for his suicidal binges than for his work; and it was the reputation of The Hostage as an anarchic Dublin rave-up - almost as good as having a jar with the man himself - that catapulted Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop production into the West End.

Behan thus inherited the curse of Shaw, Wilde and O'Casey as an Irish Cassandra of the English-speaking theatre. He had urgent things to say, and the public fell about with laughter - until the Troubles returned, when the laughing stopped and an unofficial embargo descended on his work. Michael Bogdanov's RSC revival of The Hostage coincides with the peace initiative, but I doubt whether anyone will still mistake this story of the tit-for- tat killing of an English soldier for a harmless bit of fun.

Looked at autobiographically, it mirrors Behan's predicament as a Republican activist who had got to know the British and concluded that working people are all much alike. There is no reconciling those two positions, and every aspect of the play reveals a man at war with himself.

Take the setting: a former Republican stronghold turned shebeen and brothel, with a former IRA commandant as its caretaker. What does that represent: the growth of tolerance and realism in place of bigotry and bloodshed; or the decline of a heroic country into a knocking shop? It means both; and the shape of the piece is dictated by the fact that it is backing two mutually exclusive alternatives. Littlewood may be partly resposible for its ramshackle structure (the original Gaelic version, An Giall, is said to have a tighter script). But there is no point in complaining about the unmotivated entrances and exits, or the habit of stopping the show for a jig or a ballad. Only by fracturing the narrative can the two lines develop without cancelling each other out. As it is, they supply the conflicting dynamic in a tragi-comic comment on Ireland that far transcends autobiography.

The key element in the production is its relaxation - a term I never thought to apply to a Bogdanov show. However frenzied the action, there is enough air around it for someone to call a halt and break into song. The way is always open for irony to puncture idealism, the past to engulf the present, and a virginal love affair to blossom in the whorehouse. Dermot Crowley as Pat, the terminally disillusioned 1916 veteran, emerges as the master of anti- climax, relishing some of the funniest lines Behan ever wrote. He is magnificently partnered by Dearbhla Molloy as the blowsily voluptuous Meg, bulging out of black satin as she keeps her girls in order, and then mounting a table to deliver 'Who fears to speak of Easter Week' with a surging passion that transforms her into a monumental emblem of patriotic defiance.

Idealism is brilliantly contrasted by John Woodvine, as Monsewer, the crazy old Anglo- Irish house-owner forever locked into his memories of the Uprising, and Eoin McCarthy as the ruthlessly inexperienced IRA diehard of the present. A bleak meaning gradually takes shape amid the farcical chaos as the deadline for the hostage (Damien Lyne) approaches. Everyone is kind to him; he can have anything he wants - drink, free sex, teddy bears. But no one will save him by turning informer. And when he dies it is by the same kind of bungled accident that kills Bessie Burgess in O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars. Yet again, Ireland fails to escape from history.

In his musical adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray Neil Bartlett presents the story through a 1920s reunion for Wilde's old friends in his favourite suite at the Savoy. Ada Leverson (Maria Aitken) is there, along with Robert Ross, Reggie Turner, 'Jenny' Mavor (a former rent boy), and a pretty young Guardsman (Benedick Bates) who has been hired to play Dorian. The show's governing idea is to unmask the novel as cryptic confession, with Wilde's own secret life running in tandem with that of his hero. The guests thus double as Dorian's admirers; while the disintegration of his picture (represented by a stage mirror) becomes the subject of Nicolas Bloomfield's score.

That idea is ahead of Wilde. 'Play me some mad scarlet thing by Dvorak]', cries Lord Henry in the book, as though citing the ultimate in compositional decadence. Would that Bloomfield had achieved the real thing; but his six strings and harp do little more than evoke an ominously festive atmosphere; rising at the murder of Basil Hallward (Tim Pigott-Smith) to a cello echo of 'If you want to know the time, ask a policeman'.

A generalised verdict on Bartlett's text would be that he has opened a box of tricks which he cannot control. Why is the group engaged in these amateur theatricals? How can Dorian simultaneously represent Wilde himself and the boy of his dreams? There are plenty of other questions; but the main point is that Bartlett has opened the box. And in meta- theatrical exercises of this kind it is the detail that counts, not the generalities. On these terms, the show is full of flashing insights, hilarious comic transitions, and passages when Wilde's dreams of a world fit to live in eclipse the aesthetic posturing and sexual slumming. Better one ground-breaking experiment like this than any number of dutiful revivals.

In an outstanding week for regional Shakespeare, Bill Alexander's Birmingham production of The Tempest opens with the ship's crew suspended on a swing, gently swaying in an atmosphere of petrified silence. They hardly dare speak. When they do, every whispered word is a thrilling event; and when the storm does strike, the whole theatre becomes the sinking ship. Wonderful. Having rescued that notoriously unplayable scene, Alexander salvages the clowns by treating their recruitment of Caliban as a drinking orgy in which there is no pretence that the lines are funny. A white Caliban - Richard McCabe, lumberingly agile as Laughton's Quasimodo - becomes the slave of a dark- skinned Prospero and Miranda (Jeffery Kissoon and Ginny Holder), whose other servant, Rakie Ayola's child-like Ariel, still shivers at the name of Sycorax. Fresh detail apart, the performances are motivated in extraordinary detail, and repeatedly crystallise into poetic imagery - unfailingly intensified by Ruari Murchison's set which embraces the island within two circles of sand and sky.

At Clwyd, Helena Kaut- Howson stages Macbeth on a slatted rake (by Pamela Howard) lit from below to suggest the nearness of a spirit world through the earth's fragile crust. The witches (led by Jennie Stoller) are supremely at home in this space, rolling down the slope like children in a park, and jabbering overlapping spells round the cauldron under a skull-masked Hecate before summoning the apparitions in a screen like a huge weeping eye.

Nothing, meanwhile, could be less unearthly than Timothy West's Macbeth; first seen wearing full pack and gaiters, and taking every supernatural development in his professional stride. Murdering Duncan is all in the day's work. Planning Banquo's assassination simply requires a military briefing. When he does fall apart, the effect is tremendous: not least in the sight of the phlegmatic recluse calmly philosophising over his wife's death, erupting into skin-saving panic at the news that the forest is on the move. Alexandra Mathie packs a lifetime's guilt into the sleepwalking scene; Richard Lynch is the first Malcolm I have seen who makes sense of the England reunion.

'The Hostage', Barbican, 071- 638 8891. 'Dorian Gray', Lyric, Hammersmith, 081-741 2311. 'The Tempest', Birmingham Rep, 021-236 4455. 'Macbeth', Theatr Clwyd, 0352 755114.