THEATRE / There was an old lady who lived in a suitcase

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The Independent Culture
I DO not for a moment doubt the existence of Daniil Kharms (alias Daniil Ivanovich Yuvachov). But if there were no evidence that he actually lived (1905-42), as an unpublished Russian experimentalist, somewhere between Kafka and Edward Lear, Theatre de Complicite might well have invented him.

Judging from Out of the House Walked a Man . . . , Kharms might have been their resident writer, specialising in everything they do best -- clown walks, pantomime railway trains, grotesque crowd scenarios, dream narrative, plus a great role for Kathryn Hunter and the pretext for a pastiche Shosta-kovich score from Gerard McBurney. And if any of the jokes about vanishing butter-rations or a tongueless orator fall flat, there is always the defence that the unique Kharms magic sometimes evaporates in translation.

Initial scepticism - prompted by an overture of hit-or-miss fragments (including ancient film clips of Soviet athletics) - vanishes once Simon McBurney's production arrives at its main story. In it we see the starving Kharms (Jozef Houben) overcoming writer's block and producing an absurdist variation on Raskolnikov's murder in Crime and Punishment. The corpse of an old woman materialises in his apartment: stone dead but lively as ever, she pursues him through the streets, speaking in his ear when he visits friends, popping up in a bread queue just as he is getting off with a girl. He can have no life until she is gone; and with mixed outrage and guilt he plans to pack her into a suitcase and dump her in the marshes.

The suitcase scene - with Hunter simultaneously inert and fastening onto Marcello Magni like a limpet - is a marvellous routine, at once an exercise in robot athletics and a macabre can-can. But it is no more than a prelude to the journey to the marshes where Kharms suffers an intestinal crisis as the train reaches its destination. There he sits sweating and helpless as the detested crone strokes his head with maternal tenderness. Then she picks up the case, supposedly containing her own body, and trudges off alone into the darkness. There is no single meaning for that. But what an imperishable image.

As a specialist in Anglo-American manners and the landscape of exile, Richard Nelson has carved out his own niche in a succession of quietly intelligent pieces on cultural displacement. Perhaps on the rebound from this, New England (his sixth play for the RSC) opens with the sight of a middle-aged professor of music blowing his brains out in view of his frantic mistress.

Why did he do it? As the bereaved children descend on Alice (the mistress) at the Connecticut farmhouse you expect them to supply an answer; but it never comes. What does ensue is a jittery wake for a pack of siblings who never much liked each other at the best of times. They are all English expats. Why the whole family emigrated to the US is another thing we never find out. Their value to Nelson is that they allow him to reverse the game he played in Some Americans Abroad and examine the mentality of some uprooted Brits. They are all given smart-sounding professions: but, again, we learn nothing about screenplay-reading from Paul, publishing from Elizabeth, or painting from Gemma. The only character whose job counts for anything is Tom, a drama teacher (Mick Ford) who has a high old time mimicking his idiot American students. As Alice's ex-brother-in-law, Tom is also the only outsider at the party; and his forced conviviality and surly embarrassment in the role of unwanted guest supplies the show with one fruitful dramatic situation.

It is the only one. Alice might equally have occupied an outsider role, but the siblings have too many other enemies to concentrate on her. One target is the Americans, who are sneered at for their supposed lack of irony and capacity to see themselves: though these standard accusations reduce the characters to ventriloquist puppets of the American author. Their real venom is reserved for each other. There is no plot; but instead, each character has a little scene, and then unselfishly makes way for the next one to throw a stage-hogging tantrum.

Manipulative as it is, the play receives a stunning production by Peter Gill, with dynamically orchestrated overlapping dialogue, and perfectly judged rhythms of climax and exhaustion. Selina Cadell's brattishly possessive Elizabeth, Duncan Bell's maritally frustrated Paul, and David Burke as the dead man's obstreperous twin, all make trouble in their own obnoxious ways. Alice gets a lovely, farcically despairing performance from Angela Thorne, avidly lighting up a formerly forbidden cigarette, as the one thing she has gained in losing everything else. The show is not boring. It is like a chamois leaping from crag to crag: exhilarating until you spot the chasms in between.

To spectators of the current Royal Shakespeare Company production, Euripides' Ion is a wry satire on the gods, showing Apollo's humiliation when he is exposed as the title character's rapist parent. That production offers a cool anachronistic comedy. By contrast, Nick Philippou's excellent version for the Actors Touring Company stretches the play to its furthest possible extremes. Exploiting the violent changes of register in Kenneth McLeish's translation, it puts you on a theatrical roller-coaster with awesome Olympian ascents and precipitous drops into comic reality. The casualty is individual psychology: the stages of Ion's development are far less clear in Gary Turner's bull-like performance than in the RSC show. The gain is in tragic force and in the sense of the god's presence: as in the wounded prayers of Kreousa (Shelley King) to a glowing sun disc, and in the malevolently ambiguous arrival of the masked Athene. In such an atmosphere, (intensified by Costas Vomvolos's ominous score), the arrival of a group of gossiping Edwardian tourists, followed by Michael Roberts's buffoonish Ksouthos, and strings of down-to-earth gags become as irresistibly funny as a naughty limerick in church.

A brief but unreserved recommendation for Friedrich Durrenmatt's A Spanner in the Works, a superbly plotted 90-minute thriller in which three retired lawyers take in a stranded traveller for the night and entertain him by putting him on trial for murder. Margarete Forsyth's production offers a trio of silkily lethal septuagenarians, and a vulgarly callous guest (Jack Chissick) who shocks the spectator as well as himself by finally seeing his face in the mirror.

'Out of the House Walked a Man': Lyttelton, 071-928 2252. 'New England': Pit, 071-638 8891. 'Ion': Lyric Studio, Hammersmith, 081-741 2311. 'A Spanner in the Works': Greenwich Studio, 081-858 2862.

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