THEATRE / Too many fools to make a masterwork

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ALEXANDER Griboyedov (1795- 1829) is known to the world as the author of a single work variously described by its commentators as the first great Russian comedy and the richest verse play in the Russian language. It is also said to be untranslatable; and how are non- Russians to challenge that when the title comes out as The Misfortune of Being Clever and Bitterness out of Intelligence? At least that obstacle has been swept away by its belated and well-titled arrival on the English stage - first as Wit's End (at New End last September), and now as Chatsky, or The Importance of Being Stupid, at the Almeida: one a robust prose version by Stephen Walshe, the other an athletic performance in rhymed verse by Anthony Burgess. Good as they are, I doubt whether Burgess's couplets will turn up as national proverbs, as Griboyedov's did; but at least we can form some idea of why this piece has cast such a lasting spell over its compatriots.

Its author described it as a comedy 'for 25 fools and one sensible man' - this being the hero, Chatsky, who returns to Moscow after three years abroad to find that his beloved Sophie has fallen for her father's secretary, Mochalin. He is further appalled by the corrupt, crawling and ignorant smugness of Moscow society, as represented by Sophie's venal civil servant father Famusov, and the sclerotically bemedalled Colonel Skalozub. The horror is mutual once Chatsky starts speaking his mind; and reaches its climax in a party scene where the porcine gentlefolk conspire to declare the liberal outsider a madman. After the final disclosure that Mochalin's love affair is another sycophantic ruse, Chatsky abandons the Muscovites to their fate.

The Almeida programme makes two self-cancelling claims for the play. According to Burgess, it is always topical 'since it is about the failed attempt of an intellectual rebel to indent (his) smug and philistine society'. But for Tania Alexander, Chatsky 'remains alive because he is needed whenever one era is replaced by another'. Stage history seems to be on Burgess's side from the play's first performance, safely delayed until after the Decembrist uprising of 1825, through Meyerhold's 1928 attempt to hijack it as a Decembrist polemic, to the Moscow Art Theatre's 1938 revival, by which time Chatsky had turned into a Comintern spokesman. Not for nothing is he acknowledged as the prototype of that omnipresent Russian character, the 'superfluous man': timely whenever he does crop up, but doing nothing to change things.

In the two English productions he has emerged as a link between Moliere and Gogol: an ungaggable social critic like Moliere's Alceste in a society of insensible grotesques. And, as Pushkin objected even before the play was staged: if Chatsky is such a clever chap, why is he wasting his intelligence on dolts such as Famusov and Skalozub? For Russian and non-Russian speakers alike, that is a question mark over the comedy's claim to be a masterwork.

Set in an adaptable timber den (by Tim Hatley) that unites squalor with tawdry display, Jonathan Kent's production is a thoroughly Gogolesque event: recruiting such comic specialists as Rosalind Knight, Murray Melvin and John Tordoff into a giggling, bitching menagerie of overdressed trolls under the supervision of John Fortune's deadpan Skalozub (a lovely performance) and Dinsdale Landen, who plays Famusov with the whiskery brio of the late Jimmy Edwards. The loser is Chatsky, who has no place in expressionist farce. Colin Firth submits to his fate in a flattened performance that rises neither to love nor social criticism. He is to be heard nagging from time to time; but that fails to explain why this passive melancholic becomes the centre of attention.

'If it's not scary it's not worth doing,' says David, television-actor turned cruising waiter in Brad Fraser's Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love. That is one way of linking into this bondage-strapped daisy- chain whose characters seem to be as much on heat for death as for sex. With a woman in suspenders filling in the scene breaks with nightmare fairy-tales of slaughtered children and headless boyfriends, this is the kind of piece of which sexually envious or ageing reviewers are apt to make mock. Mr Fraser can write excellent vicious comedy; but nowhere does he take shelter behind it. The setting is Edmonton, Alberta, compared to which Manhattan seems like Bournemouth. Every sexual move involves hurt, betrayal, physical peril or bloody extinction; all of which heightens the attraction of the next coupling. The action unfolds under the shadow of serial killings, which are finally tracked down to David's middle-aged lover; and if you hate the piece, you will find its most defenceless spot in the scene where the murderer trustingly takes the boy's gun in his mouth. Never has the cult of love as a moral carte blanche been pushed to that limit of absurdity. But Fraser is not justifying anything. He is showing what these people do, in a passionate, elegantly patterned dance of desire and loss, whose power resides less in violence than in moments such as where the company forms a chorus of rejected partners chanting 'Call me, call me' into unresponding answering machines. Smashing performances (in Ian Brown's production) from Dougray Scott, Lesley Vickerage and Charlotte Jones.

Frederick Lonsdale's comedies have always struck me as ill-concealed hymns of hate against his carriage-trade clientele: but that impression does not survive David Gilmore's immaculately designed revival of On Approval. The leading members of this courtship quartet are as spiteful and selfish as ever, and all Paula Wilcox needs to go with her pearls is a broomstick. But Jeremy Sinden, as her appalling ducal partner, invests greed and egotism with a self-righteous innocence that compels affection while redoubling the laughs. One of the comic performances of the year.

'Chatsky': Almeida (071-359 4404). 'Unidentified Human Remains': Hampstead (071-722 9301). 'On Approval': Palace, Watford (0923-225671).