A thoroughly modern tragedy

THE CRITICS THEATRE
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Indy Lifestyle Online
A CITY is under seige. It's a pointless conflict. No one will win. Some-one tries to broker a peace deal. No one budges. Talks fail. Fighting resumes. Faced with this scenario, it's very tempting to think how relevant this is, throw up back-projections of Sarajevo and have the warring parties enter brandishing Kalashnikovs.

Not for Katie Mitchell, it isn't. You know you are in the hands of a purist when you enter The Other Place at Stratford and an usher hands you a sprig of thyme. He can't sell you a programme yet because Mitchell doesn't want you reading during the performance. Inside, there is seating on three sides, like an indoor amphitheatre, with padded benches. The rows are lettered alpha, beta, gamma, delta. Incense burns. At either end, small images of gods perch up against the black walls. Mitchell knows, rightly, that venues are part of the show.

In her new production of The Phoenician Women, she strips away the tired images that cluster round Greek tragedies and avoids replacing them with topical cliches. From the outset, when Jocasta (Lorraine Ashbourne) spells out, in a feisty Mancunian voice, what's happened so far, the story imprints itself on the audience as clearly as the stencilled numbers on the seats. There are two main ingredients here: the war between Oedipus' sons, articulated with a com- pelling vehemence by this cast - and the chorus of Phoenician Women.

A surprising group, with a preponderance of Northern accents, they've travelled from Lebanon to Thebes. They cling to their rituals with the same fervour with which they hang on to their dusty suitcases. They dance, swirl and jog round the stage: breaking into Balkan chants and conjuring up musical rhythms by drumming the floor, pounding their chests or - with weird effectiveness - running pestles round the rims of brass bowls.

We witness what the Phoenician women witness: the outraged Polyneices (Dermot Kerrigan) takes on his power-mad brother Eteocles (Sean Murray) in a futile struggle. Creon (Michael Gould) hugs the legs of craggy old Teiresias (Peter Copley, looking two to three times the age of the others) and prays that the prophecy about his son's death isn't true. Oedipus (Antony Byrne) runs his hands over the dead bodies of Jocasta and their two sons and asks: "Three gone together?" These events ripple out. The Phoenician women act as the echo chamber.

Mitchell's wonderfully spare production means that, in David Thompson's translation, Euripides emerges as much a war correspondent as a poet:

"It was a massacre. Men cut down and dying,

Slumped across chariot-rails, wheels bucking,

Leaping, axle piled on axle, mounds of dead - "

There's an urgent simplicity here, as if we're hearing a bulletin from the frontline, but Mitchell's production is richly textured. She blends Claire Hughes's music with a subliminal backing track (by Andrea J Cox): mosquitoes murmur, armies clash, dogs bark. It never distracts but constantly shapes the mood. Mitchell draws out impassioned performances that involve us fully in the characters, without reducing them to anything petty or domestic. It's a superb production. Who needs to be shown images of Bosnia? In Mitchell's hands, it is hard to imagine a more contemporary writer than Euripides.

In the final number of Jolson, Brian Conley falls to his knees, stretches out his palms and belts out "My Mammy" with an irresistible shamelessness. It's been a huge evening for Conley. This is a West End musical that more than matches the size of Al Jolson's ego, and although there is excellent support from the radiant Sally Ann Triplett as Jolson's second wife, the show is Conley's. He does 19 of the 32 songs and when he isn't singing, he's quarrelling with agents, wives, pianists and producers. As Conley sinks to the floor, the first- night audience - yes, Rolf Harris, Jim Davidson, Bob Monkhouse, the lot - rose to its shiny feet. Fireworks went off, balloons floated down and and usherettes handed round champagne. Euripides, this wasn't: but in the era of the blockbuster through-sung musical, it's great fun to find a backstage musical produced with this lavish exuberance. It reclaims a chunk of the West End from Lloyd Webber.

Within the conventions of the genre Jolson works well. As you'd expect with a bio-musical about a great American entertainer whose mother died when he was nine, My Mammy turns out to be a pivotal figure. Losing her is the emotional centre of Jolson and they don't exploit it too mawkishly.

We're all too familiar with the scene changes in showbiz musicals - dressing room, restaurant, penthouse apartment, film studios - but the writers Francis Essex and Rob Bettinson (who directs) have come up with a funny, fast-moving and unpretentious book, that packs in, if anything, too many Twenties songs.

In the musical, unlike the career, Jolson spends very little time with a black face. In case "blacking up" worries you, there's a cute scene where Jolson helps a black kid who wants to go into showbusiness. So that's all right then. Happily we join the Jolson story when he's already a success - which spares us the audition scene - and we follow his decision to go solo, his rise and rise, his fall and his comeback. We get glimpses of early Jolson that don't hold up the action: his agent, Epstein (John Bennett) is left to ad-lib in front of a Broadway audience, and fills us in with some tart comments about his absent client. The most cunning bit, in an evening of frank audience manipulation, is the way we're steamrollered into joining in the storyline. When Jolson gives a concert at Radio City, he thanks his agent. A character in a musical is thanking another character, who happens to be off-stage. And here we are clapping.

Theatres today prefer to discuss new plays in terms of "new writing' as if writing precedes stagecraft and the business of getting people on and off isn't intimately connected with what's written. In One Flea Spare, the young American writer Naomi Wallace, displays an unusual poetic talent with little apparent interest in how it works on stage. Too many scenes end abruptly (blackout, actors re-group, lights up again). Dangerously long speeches are given to a child actor. A sailor speaks of dispatching a captain: "we whipped and pickled him, then we threw the fat, gutted chucklehead overboard." A 17th-century sailor calls someone a "fat gutted chucklehead"?

The plague of 1665 compels four characters - a couple, a sailor and a young guard - to share two rooms in a London house. A fifth character guards outside. This is a variation on four characters stuck in a lift. Disease brings corruption, which brings change: the servant turns on the master, the wife on the husband, the child on the adult. But what the characters rarely break out of is the literariness of the idea.

In Dominic Dromgoole's lovingly rendered production, Jason Watkins has an absorbing earnestness as the sailor Bunce and Sheila Reid a parched dignity as the lady of the house. But One Flea Spare remains a hot-house plant - attractive in its way, but unlikely to survive in a larger, draughtier climate, like an average-sized theatre.

'The Phoenician Women': Stratford Other Place, 01789 296655. 'Jolson': Victoria Palace, SW1, 0171 930 8800. 'Flea': Bush, W12, 0181 743 3388.

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