THEATRE / Tragically trashy Shaffer

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The Independent Culture
IT HAS been the inveterate habit of theatrical commentators to cast a despairing eye over the trivial entertainments of their time, and lament the theatre's decline from its origins as a sacred force in the life of the community. If only those days could return. In The Gift of the Gorgon Peter Shaffer grants that wish, with results calculated to send Oresteia- fanciers rushing for cover into the nearest Ray Cooney farce.

Shaffer tells the story of a playwright who set out to remake Greek tragedy on the modern stage, and who ended sliced up in a bath like Agamemnon and returning like Clytemnestra as an unappeased ghost. Neo-classic plays are a rarity nowadays; but even the heyday of Sartre and Cocteau offers no equivalent for Shaffer's combination of naturalistic narrative and full classical formality on a stage where modern dress characters mingle with gods and heroes. Added to which, this is also a memory play.

Beginning with a radio announcement of the playwright Edward Damson's death, it takes the form of a biographical inquiry by his unacknowledged son, Philip, an Illinois academic who worships the plays but knows nothing of the man who wrote them. Philip arrives uninvited at the Greek island where his reclusive father died, and is received with bad grace by his widow, Helen, who finally agrees to collaborate only after making Philip swear to write the book no matter what revelations are in store. At which point you sit back to watch him unravelling the mystery while advancing into some dark Oedipal trap.

With Philip (Jeremy Northam) taking notes at his father's desk, the action goes into flashback, showing Helen, daughter of a Cambridge classicist, being swept off her feet by the destitute playwright-to-be, joining in his pilgrimage to Greece, and returning as Damson's Muse during the composition of the two plays that make his name: dramas of violence and beauty, respectively taking vengeance on the Byzantine iconclast Constantine and on Cromwell for their destruction of sacred images. By now Athene and Perseus have also arrived on the scene as mythical prototypes of Helen and the Gorgon-slaying Damson. Masked and glittering in golden armour, they look wonderful, in John Gunter's design, as they descend a supernatural bridge from the back wall. But here you start noticing cracks in the pattern. The earthly and immortal figures do not match up. Athene bestows magic weapons on Perseus; whereas Helen's role is to disarm her hero, persuading him to parley with the enemy rather than going in for the kill.

This is not the relationship between an artist and his Muse: it is the latest round in Shaffer's long- running duel of opposites - head against heart; intellect against inspiration; and, in this case, moral law against the rights of passion. Damson writes plays proclaiming the sanctity of revenge - which, he claims, will restore the theatre's moral power. Helen is there to restrain him and keep the violence off stage - though, unaccountably, not to dispel his illusion that ancient tragedy authorises blood reprisal. When, fired by the Enniskillen bombing, he defies her and ruins his career with a play celebrating the ritual slaughter of an IRA man, she comes back with the line: 'The dead have to be resisted. When they call for blood we have to be deaf.' As delivered from the gut by Judi Dench, it is a statement that breaks out of its immediate context and applies to the avalanche of nationalist revenge that has befallen Europe since 1989.

I honour Shaffer for having extended his story into this public dimension. But the idea of the play is far more powerful than the work he has written. Its details do not add up. Helen (finally turned avenger) wants to publicise Damson's ghoulish suicide so as to destroy his work. But nothing would be more likely to immortalise it, however implausible the alleged success of his boomingly abstract historical dramas. Damson himself is an almost unplayable role. Michael Pennington, eyes permanently ablaze, drains his energy into its ritual dances and scorching tirades, but the character remains a lifeless construct with tiresomely grandiose speech habits. The crowning irony is that, in pursuing the spirit of ancient tragedy, Shaffer has devised a trashy romance about a bookish ingenue being abducted to the hot South by a demon lover. The play's separate strands are delivered with eloquent clarity and boldness in Peter Hall's production which also presents an all too believable pair of disappointed fathers (Edward Jewesbury and Michael Poole).

After two ranging shots at the role, Kenneth Branagh renews his assault on Hamlet in Adrian Noble's uncut, modern dress production. Up to the first interval, I had the impression that Branagh (as boyish as ever) was playing for sympathy while crudely underlining every irony in sight. 'I am too much i' the sun,' he says, making the pun brutally obvious to his would-be parent. On the reference to old men's weak hands, he pointedly looks down at Polonius's hands: I have not seen an actor do this since Gielgud over 40 years ago. Branagh has voices for every occasion, but they emerge as a rhetorical mosaic, lacking any continuous emotional undercurrent. The performance improves immensely with the play scene, where Branagh becomes drunk with exhilaration, invading the stage to take over the murderer's role, and speeding through the scenes up to the embarkation for England with thrillingly accelerated responses, no less varied than before, but all clearly motivated, and some brutally ugly.

Two contrasted images may suggest the range of production itself. First, Branagh leaning over the praying Claudius (an excellent John Shrapnel) hissing curses in his ear, and then leaving him to discover a sword that had not been there when he knelt down. Then, in the closet scene, the sight of the distracted Gertrude (Jane Lapotaire), Hamlet, and the Ghost sitting together holding hands in a momentary tableau of of their domestic past, before they are re-engulfed in the tragic present. Domesticity is one of the production's strengths; as in the glimpse of Polonius (David Bradley) at work in his study; and the mischievous leave-taking in Ophelia's bedroom. It contains an upright piano which survives when the stage has turned to ashes, and nothing hurts more in Joanne Pearce's wonderful performance than her return to this old friend, hammering out discordant accompaniments to her mad songs. It is a long evening, but there are rich textual bonuses - such as Hamlet's prolonged send- up of Osric's courtly euphuisms, which Branagh delivers prestissimo in a single breath.

Cyrano de Bergerac looks physically cramped in Michael Yeargan's ponderously fussy settings, but that is my only complaint against Elijah Moshinsky's exhilaratingly full-blooded revival (racy new text by John Wells). One of its strengths is that it makes no apology for the romance. Even the proxy wooing of Roxane (Stella Gonet) works as a verbal equivalent of foreplay; and when she turns up during the seige of Arras it is amid an authentic scene of famine and carnage. Julian Glover keeps the aristocratically reptilian de Guiche within human limits that enable him to mellow into a rueful old friend. The show's main justification is the central casting of Robert Lindsay who has arrogance, deadly physical coordination, hair-trigger comic timing, desperate vulnerability, open- hearted charm - in short, everything this great role needs with one exception: his nose needs to be an inch longer.

I remember Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall's Billy Liar as one of the funniest plays of the Fifties. That is how it comes over in Tim Supple's revival which presents a dour vista of stunted lives, relentless bullying, sexual blackmail, and leaves you wondering why Billy (Paul Wyett) took refuge in fantasy instead of sorting his tormentors out with a carving knife.

'Gift of the Gorgon', Pit (071-638 8891); 'Hamlet', Barbican (071-638 8891); 'Cyrano de Bergerac', Haymarket (071-930 8800); 'Billy Liar', Cottesloe (071-928 2252).