THEATRE / The Fringe: Lifeless resurrections

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The Independent Culture
WATCHING Stage One's production of Marlowe's Dido, Queen of Carthage (Rudolf Steiner Theatre, London), you feel that perhaps her four-century burial in the theatrical dustbin was deserved. 'The first professional production since 1593,' the programme boasts: but there are good reasons why Dido has been branded with that equivocal phrase 'neglected classic'. True, it contains some marvellous verse: Aeneas's gore-spattered aria to the wrack of Troy and Dido's protestations of love has a fierce beauty. But it's a rambling, ponderous tale, and Radio 3 recently managed to pack the good bits into an hour.

Director / designer Michael Walling attempts the grandeur of a full production, with a cast of five. Thus Heaven is a gay bar (geddit?) where goatish old leather-boy Jupiter dallies with a fey Ganymede to the disgust of the spandex-clad Amazonian goddesses. The text bears it, but the image sits ill with the 'classic' acting that characterises the rest.

The tone is set by Kevin Costello's grizzled Aeneas, all sonorous anguish. There's far too much posturing and declaiming throughout, and only Julie Saunders, an imperious Dido, has the gravitas to pull it off. Meanwhile, cabaret artiste Bertie camps it up as a simpering Cupid and bears the brunt of the songs set to Anthony Ingle's ropy, injudicious music.

Dido is too loose a tale to stand up under the conflicting pressures of the wryly modern and the self-consciously grandiose that constitute Walling's interpretation, and you have to work hard to maintain your suspension of disbelief before the absurdity of it all. So farewell then, Dido, for the next 400 years.

Wooden Tongues are similarly at sea with a seafaring tale in their production of Pericles (Union Chapel, London). Given that it's a gloomy, halting tale, it's a tall order for a company that mixes puppetry and live action.

The life-sized puppets work - an imperious seven-foot King Antiochus with a splendidly expressive face, and two bawds: oafish aunt-sally caricatures in the manner of most Shakespearian clowns. But where subtlety is needed in the serious roles, the smaller puppets are seriously inadequate. Not because the 'live' actors show them up, though.

It would be too easy to make jokes about woodenness, but the humans seem to scale their acting down to the puppets' level. Patrick Driver's Pericles is earnest, unmodulated and shallow. Gower's part is given to Marina, which would be fine if she didn't gesture like an android when narrating. Once the novelty value has gone, this adds up to a lifeless, cartoonish reading: Pericles has too many strings attached for puppets.

With so many seldom-performed British classics around, foreign drama is lucky to get a look in. But lo, here is Alexander Ostrovsky's Wolves and Sheep (Hen & Chickens, London). While his early plays spit with scathing wit, Wolves and Sheep (1875) is the product of an older, tireder man. Its story of greed (again), manipulation (again) and hypocrisy (again) feels mechanised and laboured, as if the author has lost his convictions.

First-time director Julian Parkin gives it a competent production, but that's not enough to make this play speak across the years and the language barrier. You wonder what, beside the spurious appeal of the 'neglected classic', the reason was for doing it. Still-living neglected playwrights, though, should take heart: revivals can make a great argument for new writing.

'Dido' to Oct 23 (071 723 4400); 'Pericles' to Oct 21 (071 226 1686); 'Wolves and Sheep' to Oct 30 (071 704 2001).