When all the world's a stage: When is a theatre not a theatre? When it's a timber yard, herb garden or kitchen. Clare Bayley visits the Barclays New Stages Festival

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The Independent Culture
From the wide, open amphitheatres of the Greeks, through the gilded playhouses of the Victorians, to the minimalist adaptability of the black box, each age has its characteristic theatre space. But what happens when theatre moves to a space designed for some other activity?

The Barclays New Stages Festival, which has been running at London's Royal Court for a month, captures the current vogue for taking theatre out of theatres by also featuring performances in a garden and an industrial space. The intention is to recover a sense that theatre is a special event, and one worth travelling to.

Pete Brooks' Festival contribution, Clair de Luz, is 'staged' in Islington's Old Timber Yard, where he has built a replica Fifties fleapit cinema. The play tries to recreate the thrill of the movies (if you can't beat the pulling power of cinema, appropriate it), and Brooks even considered putting a rain-machine outside the phoney box-office (to recapture the feeling of escaping into the dark comfort of a cinema), but foul weather made this unnecessary.

Clair de Luz is a formal exercise, an attempt to make the stage, blocked off into a screen-like shape, imitate the camera. Laura Hopkins and Neil Robson's cunningly constructed set moves between scenes to reveal different 'angles of vision': a shut door in a corridor, the room behind the door, the room as seen through the window. Compared to the apparent spontaneity of the camera, the theatre's physicality seems clumsy, but some extraordinary stunts are pulled off - like when the usherette tips out a mysterious box, the stage 'shutter' closes, and the next scene opens on a bird's-eye view of the usherette examining the box's scattered contents.

The specificity of a place, with the particular ghosts of events and people it contains, is an important aspect of all non-theatre theatre work. Bobby Baker is an artist who has consistently made work which is inseparable from its location. Kitchen Show, performed in her kitchen, was both a highly personal account of her own domestic rituals, and a hymn of recognition for the loneliness, self-doubt and unexpected flarings of sensuality of all women in kitchens. Kitchen Show was followed in 1993 by How to Shop, which took place in supermarkets; this year, Baker lands up in the Chelsea Physic Garden for A Useful Body of Herbs.

Little more than a work-in- progress, this is her least impressive piece to date. Sadly, Baker does not draw her inspiration from the physical presence of the garden, but from its historical function - the cultivation of herbs for medicinal research. She has planted a body-shaped box to represent herself: lavender (recommended for hysteria) sprouts from her head, basil (associated with scorpions, and good for relieving tension) from her heart. The planted body recalls the earth from which we all come and to which we must all return, while the herbs themselves map the physical and emotional afflictions we suffer. But none of it was pushed quite far enough; and outside the garden beckoned alluringly.

While most directors and performers attempt to banish the spectre of previous productions when they take over a theatre, Rose English called upon these very ghosts, hidden in the drapes of the Royal Court, to give Tantamount Esperance its resonance. (Deborah Warner did something very similar with Footfalls at the Garrick, radically altering the space so that those in the stalls had to stand up and turn around to watch the performance in the Royal Circle.)

Tantamount Esperance is an extravagant spectacle of magic and tricks: walking on air, tango- dancing, conjuring and fabulous costumes. All this disguises an unashamedly intellectual investigation into human aspiration; the desire to fly, both literally and metaphorically. English neatly employs the theatre itself as a metaphor, with the conceit that a group of magicians spend nine nights attempting to understand the nature of the soul, but learn to their disappointment that the only secret is that there is no secret, and that in itself is a secret which must be closely guarded.

English once rejected all theatre conventions. She is, however, clearly transfixed by the medium, and is gradually accepting its disciplines. But, having mastered the art of the theatrical, she still resists the idea of the dramatic. Repetition can be powerful in the theatre, but monotony is not. Tantamount Esperance has no dramatic shape, and its potentially finest moment - when the silver drapes fall away, revealing battered brickwork - is just one of its victims.

Confounding our expectations of a known theatre space is a well-known strategy in the battle to keep theatre alive. Stephen Daldry, now artistic director at the Court, once made the little Gate Theatre famous for the miraculous transformation which happened with each new production. His experiments have continued at the Court with a total re-fit for The Kitchen, aimed to shock Sloane Square audiences out of their fabled complacency.

Meanwhile, in the Court's Theatre Upstairs, Desperate Optimists challenge our preconceptions with the ironically titled Hope. The space is strewn with technical apparatus, personal effects and incidental objects. Kaffe Matthews' midi violin, linked up to a synthesiser of sampled household noises, establishes a troubling atmosphere. An assemblage of fragmented yet interconnected stories and images follow: Joe Lawlor confesses regret at having no religious faith while a radio report of the siege at Waco plays in the background. The audience is left to pick their own way through the evidence which, despite appearances, is carefully fashioned to throw light on human suffering.

While so many young companies strive self-consciously to give us an oblique new vision of the world, the astonishing disabled performers' company New Breed succeeds effortlessly. In their excellent Grimm, a series of images drawn from fairy-tales, there is no need for the company to struggle to shock their audience because their very disability will do so, irrevocably altering the world they portray.

One of the primary objectives of the festival is to rediscover the thrill of theatre through experiment. In this spirit, one of English's characters declaims, 'Representation is both futile and heroic.' However, while acknowledging that formal progress cannot be made without experiment, the truly heroic work in this festival is that which is more than just formal experiment for the sake of it.

The festival continues to 4 June in

London, then in Manchester to 25 June

(Details: 071-730 1745)

(Photograph omitted)