THEATRE / When all the world's a stage

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The Independent Culture
'I WANT cultures of all lands to be blown about my house,' said Gandhi, 'but I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.' And what if Peter Brook's Mahabharata had been doing the rounds in those days? Would the Mahatma have dug his heels in?

That roughly sums up my queasy response to the Asian Tara Arts company's first encounter with Shakespeare. In past productions of Sanskrit, French, Greek, and Russian classics, they have proved themselves the most culturally open-minded troupe in Britain. If theatre ever can be useful, theirs is the kind most likely to do good. Their next major project is a version of the Odyssey based on research among the migrant tribes of South India and Western Australia. I look forward to that. But in the case of Jatinder Verma's production of Troilus and Cressida, I feel an attack of blimpish nationalism coming on: damned outsider gate- crashing the club, doesn't know the rules . . .

One cause for this is Verma's programme note. It says: 'I want . . . to tell the story simply, as clearly as possible.' His way of achieving that is to cut the opening Pandarus-Cressida-Troilus scenes, so that almost the first reference to the love theme comes on the night of consummation. The opening emphasis is transferred to the Greek-Trojan councils, again with heavy cuts (including Ulysses's vital speech on degree), played by a fast-doubling company of seven, all identically clad in Indian tunics and white trousers. I submit that it is impossible to tell the story clearly when the same actor is doubling as Troilus and Achilles; when the scurrilous Thersites turns into a cool lady critic (Shelley King - later seen as a masterful Diomedes to Yogesh Bhatt's male Cressida); and when the text has been not only cut, but mutilated with unfinished couplets, translation into franglais (for Philippe Cherbonnier's Gallic Pandarus), and the addition of new material, such as a speech for Hector foretelling the fall of Troy.

I also doubt whether the story was Verma's first priority. Magdalen Rubalcava's set is haunted by an effigy of Elizabeth I who opens the show with a 1601 proclamation against 'negroes and blackmoors' - prompting the nasty thought that the siege of Troy is being pressed into service as an allegory of racial oppression.

There is some powerfully truthful acting once the plot is allowed to engage, and brilliantly extended sequences of fire and mirror imagery, which increase the impact of the prophetic and battlefield scenes by converting them into spectacles of ritual beauty. Here, and in its use of music (singing voices combining with textual lamentation), the production presents a compelling argument for multicultural Shakespeare. Eventually, if not quite yet, the club will have to find room for it. After playing at the Derry Festival, the show reaches Battersea Arts Centre next month.

In The Destiny of Me, Larry Kramer, Aids-treatment activist and author of that magnificently enraged polemic The Normal Heart, sets out to make his peace with society and with his past. 'I can't get angry now to save my soul,' confides his alter ego, Ned Weeks. Perhaps Kramer's time is running out; he has certainly earned the right to retire from the combat. But it is saddening to see one of America's few public playwrights reverting to type and hanging it all on the family.

The form and message of the piece derive from the engulfing model of O'Neill's Long Day's Journey: all families are unhappy, and all parents pass on their wounds to their children. The story of Ned's upbringing by a violently disappointed father and artistically unfulfilled mother is a vigorous example of the genre, with incisive performances of the parents by Gary Waldhorn and Ann Mitchell, and a subtle relationship with an elder brother (Jason Durr) who sympathises with Ned while trying to straighten him out sexually.

But Kramer frames this memory play inside a hospital drama so as to preserve Ned's role as a veteran campaigner against politicised medicine. The hospital is supposedly ringed with his demonstrating supporters. Arriving for treatment he rejects the drugs as 'ratshit', and bad-mouths the medical team who understandably inquire, 'Do you want revenge or a cure?' Kramer's dialogue leaves that question up in the air and Simon Callow (playing Ned in his own production) to dispatch the hospital scenes in a tone of jovial banter so as to keep his options open. As the medical roles compare so sketchily with the memory characters, that may seem an unimportant detail, but it matters increasingly through the show as the effect of the memory play is to suggest that it was not the failure of the Government or the AMA that turned the hero into an activist, but the poisonous recollection of a father who beat him up for being a sissy. 'Never run away from a fight,' Callow admonishes his younger self (James Kennedy); at least that line comes across as fierily as ever.

'Nothing in this world compares to the feeling of being locked in a good, tight chord.' The speaker is not a bondage enthusiast but one of a close- harmony group (Stan Chandler, David Engel, Larry Raben, Guy Stroman) resurrected from a 1950s car crash to face their first full house in Forever Plaid. Look for twee elements here and you will not look in vain, but it surpasses every other compilation show I have seen by virtue of its period precision, its poised irony, and the group's manifest love for their work. As they say, it may compare to other music as marble does to Formica, but they know it inside out. It ranges from a capella sentiment to a version of 'Lady of Spain' supported by all the acts ever to get on the Ed Sullivan Show. Where else has audience participation taken the form of a minute's silence, or a spectator braved stage fright to be rewarded with a pack of plaid dental floss? This is a cult show for everybody.

'Troilus', Contact, Manchester, 061-274 4400. 'Destiny of Me', Haymkt, Leicester, 0533 539797. 'Plaid', Apollo, 071-494 5070.