THEATRE / Two into one won't go

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'HE UNITED the highest ideals in art with a cynical view of human life and died despairing - apparently by his own hand.' That is Percy Scholes's verdict on Philip Heseltine, alias Peter Warlock, critic, composer, and perhaps dabbler in the occult. If not in the same class as Marlowe, his shadowy life and unexplained death have a Faustian appeal which David Pownall explored 15 years ago in Music to Murder By: a piece that showed Heseltine killing his critical self to release the artist, and magically reincarnating himself in the 16th-century homicidal madrigalist, Gesualdo.

Now, in Poison Pen, Ronald Harwood tackles the subject from an apparently less sensational angle. His theme is the relationship between criticism and creativity; and I must say, it makes a nice change to find the artist rather than the reviewer wielding the poison pen. The play's ruling idea is that a gift is useless unless its owner has the talent to keep it in good repair, and that this is the critic's job. You could assemble a perceptive if rather prosaic essay along these lines from the leading character's speeches. But the play itself makes Pownall's flights of tarot card mumbo-jumbo look as humdrum as a shopping list.

Substituting fictional names, Harwood dramatises the artist- critic relationship by casting them as partners in a murderous vendetta. On one side the composer, Peter Godwin; on the other his critic, Eric Wells - a lifelong friend who first acclaimed Godwin's music, but is now gunning for him as a plagiarist despite an avalanche of death threats from his former idol. For fear of the same reprisal I shall not give the plot away; but you can work it out from the fact that Johanna Bryant's stage is divided between Eric's Chelsea residence (containing some lovingly chosen 1920s kitsch) and Peter's Eynsford cottage where he is never seen. We only get to meet him after a Wigmore Hall debacle, when he bursts into the Chelsea studio, finding (surprise, surprise) that Eric is not at home. There are not many beans to spill, and you can see them coming.

Harwood is writing about something that happens in the privacy of one man's mind; and, in his production, the effect of externalising the inner debate is to coarsen a Faustian debate into a Jekyll and Hyde melodrama. Until it finally cracks up, Eric's role is well-written, and Tom Courtenay brings great conviction to it, as an intelligent man at the end of his tether. The surrounding roles, including a sleuthing publisher, and a pair of drinking cronies out of Hangover Square, are narrative instruments with no life of their own. Two sex-object lovers (Emma Amos and Rhys Ifans) hopefully illustrate the creative and critical proclivities with crass double entendres and stale homosexual banter. But what really dislocates the play's thought from its action is its shuffling redefinition of the critic from an intimate ally to a man in an aisle seat; leading you to

suppose that Godwin conquered the musical world by writing his own notices.

For a deft treatment of the divided hero, I recommend John Harvey's adaptation of Patrick Suskind's novel, The Pigeon. The story of a reclusive bank security guard who flees his beloved room as a suicidal outcast when he finds the bird outside his door, it contains hardly a line of dialogue and consists mainly of detailed description of the wretched Jonathan's routines and thought processes. It defies adaptation; but Harvey has found a way in by splitting Jonathan into the twin roles of victim and detached alter ego, and telling the story backwards during a sleepless night.

Amazingly, this yields a coherent and engrossing narrative leading up to the moment of the pigeon's arrival as the unspeakable climax. Terence Lodge's production also pushes Suskind's glacial ironies into passages of uproarious fun, thanks to the partnership of Barry Stanton and Henry Woolf, both clad in identical underwear, but constantly changing mutual status. Stanton plays the prisoner of events: meticulously laying out his last supper, sweating Sphinx-like on the steps of the bank, calamitously ripping his trousers on a park bench. Woolf hovers over the events, sometimes moving in to clown the roles of a croaking

concierge or a bad-tempered seamstress, then teasing and bullying his defeated double into life. One colour is always melting into the next, until they unite in joyous evocation of Jonathan's abandoned home. To convey rapture from the memory of a cubbyhole for a steam-iron sounds unlikely, but these two pull it off.

As the progenitor of the Christian verse-drama movement of the 1940s, T S Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral has a lot to answer for; but Eliot's surprising acknowledgement of his debt to Shaw's Saint Joan proves all too true in the Stratford season's opening production. It comes to life with a vengeance when the four killers strip off their balaclavas and present the case for political murder with a Shavian defiance that is worlds removed from the versified pieties of Charles Williams, Norman Nicolson, Ronald Duncan and Eliot's other followers into this now abandoned field.

In other respects, it strikes me as an impenetrably devotional work, whatever its pre-war commercial success. Combining the form of ancient tragedy with verse idiom based on medieval miracle plays, it strikes the non-believer as a self-cancelling exercise. Like Agamemnon, Thomas Becket returns home to be slaughtered; but his death ensures his posthumous glory and strengthens the church. The spectator is required to mourn and rejoice at the same time. All I can mourn for is that the new dramatic language that Eliot evolved in Sweeney Agonistes was suppressed in favour of the devotional chop-logic and portentous choral speech of his full- length plays.

Steven Pimlott sets the piece in the 1930s, with the evident purpose of coupling textual clarity with a lively spectacle. The Chorus, four dejected ladies in print frocks, are strongly individualised soloists who combine in moments of crisis; most movingly after the murder, when they fall to their knees, not in prayer, but as cleaners stoically wiping up the blood. Modern dress does nothing for the priests, who emerge as a wily, pusillanimous trio whose eagerness to save their own skins is matched only by their smug recognition that they have profited from the death of their leader - a role abundantly earned by Michael Feast whose spiritual turmoil is matched by heroic physical authority. A fighting martyr, of course, is what Pimlott needs in a show featuring SAS combat gear and a torch-lit hue and cry through the theatre's galleries, followed by a prolonged stabbing. All this comes over as stage rhetoric; what the knights then say in their own defence comes over as stage truth.

Max, the hero of David Ashton's The Chinese Wolf, is a hunchback boy who runs a car workshop which is under threat from one Billy Chortles, a fat and horrible villain who invades the premises with two goons in Disney masks intending to burn the occupants at the stake. Long before this point in the story, the penny has dropped. Like his namesake in Sendak's books for children, Max is a frightened

innocent who works out his fears through fantasy. In Ashton's remarkable play these fantasies

become concrete reality combining adult comedy and sexual adventure with the contents of a nursery toy-box. Dominic Dromgoole's production is an act of moral imagination cantilevered out into the void. Ronan Vibert and Desmond Barrit lead a smashing company.

'Poison Pen', Manchester Royal Exchange, 061-833 9333. 'The Pigeon', Battersea Arts Centre, 071- 223 2223. 'Murder in the Cathedral', Swan, Stratford-upon- Avon, 0789 295623. 'The Chinese Wolf', Bush, 081-743 3388.

(Photograph omitted)