THEATRE / The man who made a meal of the coup

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The Independent Culture
IT'S 20 August 1991. The Kremlin hardliners have declared a state of emergency. Gorbachev is under house arrest. Yeltsin and his followers, barricaded in the Russian White House, are confronting tanks, demonstrators and troops. Moscow is in chaos. For the characters in Misha's Party, assembled in a hotel overlooking the upheaval, the implications are enormous. 'How is it out there?' asks one to a new arrival. 'Probably pretty hard to park.'

Misha's Party is a striking and clever collaboration between Alexander Gelman, advisor to Yeltsin and dramatist of life under the Soviet system (A Man with Connections, The Bench), and Richard Nelson, the playwright of the disoriented tourist (Some Americans Abroad, Columbus and the Discovery of Japan). You can just imagine them bashing out ideas for the plot. The infiltration by Interpol of a block of selfcatering apartments? The Intourist trip that went too far? They settled on the night of the abortive August coup and had the characters watch the action from a hotel restaurant. Or rather, not watch it: who cares about a state of emergency outside with all the states of emotion within? This is Some Americans Abroad hiding from Some Russians At Large.

At the heart is Mary (excellent Sara Kestelman), a tourist from New York, who's lost her granddaughter in the crowd; and Mikhail or 'Misha' (Barry Foster in swaggering mode), a Muscovite who's invited his two ex-wives, their husbands, his young daughter and his even younger fiancee to celebrate his birthday. The rubbing together of their stories sparks off some flaming rows and, on Timothy O'Brian's wonderfully tacky set (shiny red carpet, coloured lights and, to represent the hotel lobby, a metal ashtray-on-a-stick), some heated comedy.

But their situation is also bound up with events outside the window. Misha's lovers, past and present, behave like different layers of political history (the dignified old-guard wife, the frivolous emigree to America, the Yeltsin- worshipping idealist). And Mikhail himself not only has the same Christian name as Gorbachev, but is also, through other people's manipulation and his own dangerously youthful tastes, equally disempowered. When his fiancee (a poised Olivia Williams), who'd thought he was dying, finds out he isn't, she rejects him, saying: 'What struck me was - that you are old . . . It's how I saw you. It's how I see you still.' This turns our view of Mikhail right round, just as Gorbachev was never quite the same after we'd seen him with his tired eyes and cardie.

These parallels at times contort the action (would these characters really be so deaf to the excitement outside?), but David Jones's production is so wonderfully acted, the performances seem to leave the play behind. Foster and Kestelman both have a habit of stooping slightly, bowing their heads like John Le Mesurier in Dad's Army, as if tired of looking the world in the face. Katia, wife number one, is played by Barbara Jefford with hurt restraint; while as Natasha (number two), Cheryl Campbell steers a path between stiffly formal and slackly drunk, sequins and smudged lipstick tottering on too- high heels. Emma Gregory, meanwhile, stomps in martyred fury as the boot-faced daughter and, more than anyone else, puts the cow into Moscow.

In Bill Alexander's production of The Taming of the Shrew, which arrives at the Barbican from Stratford not greatly changed by the journey, Amanda Harris continues to put the cow into . . . well, cow. Katherine is often played as an early draft of Beatrice, badly-behaved but witty, a lively spirit trapped, despite herself, in a set of aggressive attitudes. Here, though, she's a whirlwind of fury, a spoilt child brandishing scissors and railing at the unfairness of the world. She gets a lover, but what she needs is a good dose of Dr Spock.

The performance is part of an ambitious, but troubling adaptation in which the emphasis is placed on dissembling, on pretence, and therefore, for most of the characters, on overacting. Alexander has made much of the main story as play-within-a-play, extending and updating the Christopher Sly framing scenes (incorporating material from the anonymous Taming of a Shrew), and introducing a group of upper- class drunken louts who toy with Sly (Maxwell Hutcheon as a yokel with a Birmingham accent) with the savagery of droogs. As the lavish pad of their leader, Lord Simon Llewellyn (Dominic Mafham), dominates the set (the actors perform downstage on bare boards), so his unbridled unpleasantness throws a chill over the farce of manners they watch.

It also becomes the subject of it. When Anton Lesser, a compelling, vigorous Petruchio, gets the spectators to take the parts of his servants, he turns on them, hurling abuse and holding up a mirror to their own behaviour. It's intriguing, but it removes attention from Katherine. Later, when she and he kiss, what is moving about the moment is dispelled when they turn to the toffs meaningfully, as if to say, 'Go on, you try it.' A comedy of the sexes has turned into social warfare.

Lust circa 1661, a new comedy musical by the Heather Brothers, doesn't waste time on anything but the bare essentials; bare being the operative word. As its title suggests, it throws back the bed- curtains of the puritan era to celebrate the new-found 'wholesome and healthy, robust' appetites of the Restoration. Based on Wycherley's The Country Wife, it's a sort of 'When did You Last See Your Testicles?' - or to borrow from the linguistic world of the show, your tackle, your chisel, your cannon, your piece of china . . .

Denis Lawson plays Horner, the confirmed bachelor who satisfies the horny while duping the horned by waving a jar of pickled walnuts and pretending to have been castrated. As a plot device this has one major advantage: allowing Lawson, who keeps together a large cast in more ways than one, infinite opportunity to swoop into agonised falsetto.

The music, let down by the lyrics (rhyming 'sister' with 'kiss sir'), is the best thing about the show - swinging from crotch-churning Elvis to Sixties pop to Italian operetta. Bob Carlton's production is all tongue-in-cheek, incredibly hammed up. Everyone's cynical, everyone's at it. Afterwards, Haymarket was thronged with tousled couples, sharing cigarettes and murmuring 'How was it for you?'

'Misha's Party', Pit, Barbican, 071- 638 8891. 'The Taming of the Shrew', Barbican, 071-638 8891. 'Lust', Theatre Royal, Haymarket, 071-930 8800.

Irving Wardle returns next week.

(Photograph omitted)