THEATRE: The Fringe - That's just the point

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The Independent Culture
An early critic of Othello said it was 'a warning to all good wives that they look well to their linen'. This sometimes gets quoted as an example of critical density, and on the whole you probably don't want people to catch you reducing major Shakespearian tragedies to lists of laundry Dos and Don'ts. All the same, you can see the point. It's always tempting to try to reduce a play to a single point, to ask: what does it mean?

The answer seems a bit too clear in the case of Neal Bell's Elsewhere, at the King's Head. Alice (Louise Jameson) is a doctor who sees her two best buddies killed in 'Nam and then goes home to work in a cancer ward. Here, she upsets the powers that be by telling dying patients the truth about their condition; then her father dies, her lover gets something terminal, she meets up with a miracle-working preacher and starts seeing visions of her dead friends. By the end, she's convinced that there is an Afterlife (the 'Elsewhere' of the title); and now she's reconciled, more or less, to death.

There is, along the way, some fairly crackling dialogue, although the cast's horribly variable American accents don't always live up to it. But the play seems to come down to one point, that our society needs to learn to cope with mortality. This is fair enough, but you don't really feel that the debate has been aired - just plumped lightly.

Again, the basic point seems fairly transparent in A Place with the Pigs, just up the road at the Union Chapel. Athol Fugard has adapted the true story of a Russian soldier who hid in a pigsty for 44 years to escape punishment for desertion, learning to cope with life at the level of animals. If there isn't a metaphor here for intellectual and spiritual life under a totalitarian regime, I'm a high-ranking officer in the KGB.

Whether the play has anything more to offer is hard to tell in a multi-media presentation by Chamber Productions. It's only fair to say that the night I went the production was swamped with technical problems - one of the videos packed up, the timing was out on the others - so we never found out why a naked figure crawled out of the pigsty at night and coiled upside down around a rope. As far as you could tell, though, the main problem was that the production needs actors with more power and confidence to get across this black allegory.

If there is a message in Strindberg's The Pelican, it is probably this: All women are bitches and mothers are the worst. This is a dauntingly up-to-date play about child abuse and family dysfunction. The title refers to the bird's legendary habit of feeding its children on its own blood; but this Mother (Jan Waters) has starved her children of food and warmth (read: love), and they have grown up sickly in mind and body. She has even seduced her daughter's husband.

The misogyny here is superficially striking; but it's more complicated than that - after all, the mother has been allowed to get away with her cartoon wickedness by her supposedly decent husband - and both the powerful emotion and the subtle undercurrents are excellently conveyed by the cast of Sean Holmes's production.

'Elsewhere', to 27 March, King's Head, London N1 (071- 226 1916). 'A Place with the Pigs', to 26 March, Union Chapel, London N1 (071-226 1686). 'The Pelican', to 2 April, The Room, The Orange Tree, Richmond, Middx (081-940 3633)

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