THEATRE / Too clever for his own good: Paul Taylor on the Russian classic Chatsky at the Almeida

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LAST WEEK, the Importance of Being Earnest; this week, The Importance of Being Stupid. That's the droll subtitle Anthony Burgess has given his new translation of a revered but (in this country) seldom revived Russian classic.

Written in 1823, banned in 1824, published for the first time in 1861 and here renamed after its angry young man protagonist, Chatsky, by Alexander Griboyedov, offers, in its rhymed couplets, a stingingly satiric view of Moscow at the time - a milieu where a steadfast resistance to ideas and cultural or political change is the sine qua non of the social climber. His venomous portrait of that world materialises memorably now on the stage of the Almeida in London in a striking production by Jonathan Kent.

Confined to a single day and place, the play shows how the hero (Colin Firth) - returning to Moscow after three years' travel abroad - fails to make any impact on the massed forces of philistinism and Francophilia he now views with withering clarity. Nothing he encounters promotes peace of mind. Sophie (Jemma Redgrave), the girl he has come back for, is carrying on a clandestine, deluded affair with Molchalin, an oily on-the-make clerk who is all smugly deferential smiles and self-serving servility in Jonathan Cullen's expert performance. In any case, her father, Famusov (a dementedly connection-conscious rank-worshipper whose autocratic tantrums and ill-disguised toadying are vividly projected by Dinsdale Landen) is entertaining another suitor that day - John Fortune's sublime booby of a conceited colonel.

Even the rambling, meliorist outburst of his old friend Reptilov (David O'Hara) suggests that if Russia's intellectuals are fostering progress in any direction, it is more likely to be through another crate of vodka than towards a bright new dawn. When, at the ball, Sophie allows the libel to spread that Chatsky is insane and all the freakishly awful guests gang up against him, it pushes to an extreme our perception of the moral topsy-turvydom of the society.

A gloomy, sardonic figure in black, often sitting apart, full of a sullen sense of his own superiority, Colin Firth certainly brings out what is Hamlet-like about this hero, who can verbally lambast corruption (in lengthy tirades) but is impotent to act. There's not much you can warm to, though, in his performance, which is somewhat unshaded and lacking in elan. Maybe one of the reasons he is left seeming chilly and unapproachable is that Griboyedov presents this figure as a truth-teller who is somehow beyond criticism. In Too Clever By Half, by contrast, Ostrovsky presents the duplicitous blockheads in the Moscow elite from the satiric viewpoint of a hero who is also an opportunistic climber and so implicated in the vices he condemns. Even Moliere's Alceste takes truth-telling to an absurd extreme that renders him one of the butts of the satire. But Griboyedov is too passionately behind Chatsky's shafts to permit any wobbling focus. Anthony Burgess's translation has a rough, forward-driving attractively slap- happy feel and seems to have undergone some improvements in rehearsal. In the script, Chatsky describes the old service choice as 'Lose your head in war, / in peacetime let it bump along the floor'; in performance, 'bump' had changed to 'scrape', which with its nod to bowing and scraping, has much more punch.

Tim Hatley's set of receding walls with sliding panels which turn into monstrous filing cabinets or candle-lit cubby-holes is a miracle of versatility. As for the brilliantly staged ball (where, among other oddities, a gaggle of elephantine, pink-bonneted princesses stampede squeakingly around), Fellini himself has rarely gathered such an eye- catching gallery of grotesques.

'Chatsky' is at the Almeida, London N1 (071- 359 4404)

(Photograph omitted)