THEATRE The House of Sleeping Beauties Haymarket Theatre, Leicester

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In one respect, and in one respect only, it reminds you of Blasted. Sarah Kane's play notoriously showed a man taking sexual advantage of an under-age girl while she was unconscious, having a cataleptic fit. The tone of The House of the Sleeping Beauties - a David Henry (M Butterfly) Hwang play which receives its British premier at the Leicester Haymarket - could not be more different from that of the Kane Mutiny. Instead of rape and cannibalism, this two-hander, set in a brothel in modern Japan, is all bowing, tea-serving formality.

The desperate emotions are heaving under the surface constraint for, as gradually becomes apparent, this establishment is clandestinely continuing a barbaric practice from the past. The beautiful young girls lined up for the old men who frequent the place are all virgins and have all been drugged so heavily that the "guests" are never inconvenienced by their conscious co-operation.

The play unfolds as a series of encounters between Kawabata (James Beattie), a widowed 72-year-old writer of fiction, who at first tetchily claims he has come with the one disinterested aim of gathering copy and the wistful, manipulatively courteous old Woman (Tamara Hinchco) who runs the place. The intellectual gamesmanship with which the erotic and the emotional are discussed put you in mind of Marivaux and, though the actors were treading on each other's lines a bit the evening I saw it and the prologue of flashed photographic stills goes on too long, you hang on to every word in David KS Tse's quietly intense production.

Whether the play ultimately repays this concentration is doubtful. There were two central problems for me. I never believed in the alleged set- up at the brothel which seemed to have been rigged for the express convenience of Hwang's thematic purposes. Rather than give the men a verbal interview you'd have thought it would be wiser for the Woman to put them through a (stiff) medical, if the aim is that the girls should function only as aids to erotic memory and not as the human equivalent of blow-up dolls. But we're assured that none of the men try to assault the girls once they realise they are virgins. Well, in that case, why don't more of them wind up in despair, as Kawabata does when, over five months of visits, the triggered memories of his emotional past dwindle to the mere memory of once having remembered.

Other than as a transit lounge to suicide or a place to get the assisted euthanasia which Kawabata eventually procures, I fail to understand this brothel's popularity. Which brings me to the second problem. A piece about the degrading ways men expect to be served by women, it ends with what Hwang appears to regard as an instance of true, loving reciprocity between the sexes. Treating her to verbal affection, a beautiful kimono and the money to break free from the brothel, Kawabata has the woman serve him poisoned tea and dies, clearly never imagining that she will immediately follow his example. So even in his supposed loving considerateness, he fails to consider her properly. A dangling irony, which you can't be sure Hwang has spotted.

For details of further events in the Asian Theatre Initiative at the Haymarket Theatre, Leicester, call 0116-253 0021 By Paul Taylor

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