ARTS REVIEW : Theatre A Patriot for Me RSC Barbican, London Paul Taylor

'You feel that this famously censor-afflicted play has itself censored out possible patches of complexity in its protagonist'
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Indy Lifestyle Online
On Wednesday's theatre page, the director Peter Gill argued that in A Patriot for Me (now revived by him at the RSC), John Osborne is suggesting "that to be gay is not to be frivolous. He is consciously pointing out that not all gay men like Judy Garland."

To the objection that Judy's career hadn't properly got off the ground in the last years of the Austro-Hungarian empire, one could reply that the Schnitzlerian society depicted in the play is often early Sixties England in osprey feathers. But to the idea that the dramatist's intention was to show that homosexuality and frivolity aren't necessarily connected, one can only respond that the story Osborne chose to tell - involving Redl, son of a Ruthenian railway clerk, who rises to high rank and trust in the imperial army, wages a losing war against his sexuality, allows himself to be blackmailed by the Russians, and when exposed obligingly blows his brains out to protect the army's honour - does the job some way beyond the call of duty.

No, this is a drama in which the hero is at odds with two societies: the straight, snobbish military world and the queeny demi-monde with which it overlaps, most egregiously in the famous drag ball. Osborne's temperamental sympathy for the hounded outsider is in sometimes fruitful, sometimes barren tension with his touchy ambivalence about homosexuality. The reluctant, self-divided rebel is a figure with huge dramatic potential; there are, none the less, crucial moments (Redl's speedy, cliche-bolstering surrender to treachery; the fact that the focus is on the waiting officials rather than inside the hero's consciousness as he prepares for suicide) where you feel that this famously censor-afflicted play has itself censored out possible patches of complexity in its protagonist.

Peter Gill's impressive, populous production negotiates its way with some aplomb through the 20-odd changes of location, using shirtless soldiers as furniture-shifters. In what began, to my eye, to take on the aspect of a running gag, beds in a wide variety of styles keep sweeping through the central doors bearing a somewhat narrower range of passenger (James Wilby's Redl and yet another naked youth). There are some excellent touches. After the suicide and the debate in the chamber of deputies, the resulting decision that standards in the army should be made more rigid is dramatised by the spectacle of a squad of soldiers closing ranks and bashing out a weird, pointless, multi-directional march in perfect unison, undeflected by the flurry of waltzers drifting round them. Not that this, or the essay in the programme on gays and the military, should delude you into thinking that Patriot comes out of the same locker-room as Burning Blue.

It wouldn't be quite true to say that the main thing that Wilby's respectably acted Redl seems to acquire in his transition from uptight lieutenant to self-hating hedonist is a monocle. Still, there's room for quite a bit more shading in the performance. Subtlety, though, is not always the play's strongest suit. Take the scene when Redl, in bed with a female prostitute, is informed that the orgasmic sounds next door are coming from a highly fanciable waiter and another man. "Your cigar's gone out," the whore remarks, subconsciously knowing, it seems, which way the wind is blowing.

n To 22 Nov. Booking: 0171-638 8891

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