Circle line that's going nowhere

THEATRE; There's nothing wrong with the National's first venture into theatre-in- the-round - apart from the production, that is

To get from the foyer of the Olivier to rows AA, BB or CC, the mirror image of rows A, B or C, you disappear down a corridor, through one door, then another, and then another one after that. One more door and you could be in someone's dressing room. Where is this?

Seconds later, you're standing on a stage that you hardly recognise. All the way round members of the audience are sitting and watching other members of the audience sitting and watching them. In the theatre-in-the- round at the National, a big-top canopy hangs from the roof, blocking out the balcony level. Here, none are more equal than others: everyone gets a good seat. You would never know it hasn't always been this way. This redesign - for two productions only - has the authority of a hit.

You can imagine why the director Simon McBurney thought that The Caucasian Chalk Circle might work this way. Not just because of the title. Brecht's play is a 1945 political parable based on a 1300 Chinese one: a judgement-of-Solomon situation, where a young child is put in the circle and pulled in two directions by his natural mother and the young woman who has raised him. It looks as if it's storytelling at its simplest. So McBurney takes the biggest theatre on the South Bank and encourages 800 of us to gather round.

After that, it's hard to know what exactly McBurney's production is after. If it's authenticity, then he achieves that with his brother Gerard McBurney's excellent music, which uses ethnic instruments, such as "shakuhachi" and "saz", that bring us close to the mountainous spirit of the Caucasus. But that attention to place is not picked up elsewhere. If it is physical theatre, as you might expect with Theatre de Complicite, then the mime techniques are disappointing. This company lack the bold precision that made their name. There's little that's innovative here: Claude Chagrin was providing stronger, more imaginative "movement" for the National in the Sixties and Seventies.

This new version of Brecht has been retranslated in an Irish idiom by Frank McGuinness. The disparate cast, who come from (among other places) Cambridge, Seville, Paris and Sarajevo, adopt Irish accents. It might be more consistent if they then broke into Gaelic jigs, but instead they break into Georgian chants. McBurney opens with Brecht's prologue, a post-war dispute about land rights, which leads into the performance of the play. This gives the story a context, but leaves us in a no-man's land, somewhere between a medieval Georgia and a 20th-century one. For the second time I was thinking: where is this?

There are beautiful set pieces: the creation of a bridge over a glacier, shouldered by the cast; the lovers meeting either side of a stream that rises and falls as the cast raise and lower horizontal staves; and the baby boy - a doll - winningly brought to life through the ventriloquist gurglings of McBurney. But the challenge of theatre-in-the-round - the handling of point of view, control of focus and blocking for a cast of 15 through 360 degrees -isn't convincingly met. The second act trial scene, in particular, is too static for this treatment. During the climax I had an uninterrupted view of an actor's back.

As Grusha, the maid who saves the life of the Governor's baby, the compelling Juliet Stevenson could be in her own play. She roots herself with an earthy stiffness, as if facing into the wind. The part of Grusha - "a good girl, but you have no brains" - calls for directness and simplicity. This means quite a lot of acting from Stevenson, who is naturally skilled at presenting a complex and slippery emotional intelligence. She has to find instead a flat-out intensity that illuminates Brecht's cartoon story.

Azdak, the idiot judge, who reverses each expectation, is a peach of a role, and McBurney should have resisted it. He takes the opposite approach to Stevenson: caricature. He nods, winks, winces, snorts, sniggers and leers. He swigs from two bottles as he swivels on his judge's chair. He has black specs and a nerdish manner: dye his hair orange and he might stand in for Dennis Pennis. But his actions speak louder than his words: vocally he's no match for the classically trained Stevenson. It's a characteristic imbalance. McBurney takes on a new version of big play in a new version of a big space and then delivers his own version of a big role. He creates a Complicite Chalk Circle and puts himself in the middle. The actor is pulling him in one direction and the director in the other. One of them should have let go.

Critics arriving at the Royal Court Upstairs (at the Ambassadors) for Tom Murphy's Bailegangaire (1985) were handed a copy of the play. The smart move would have been to go away and read it. Murphy's play, subtitled "The Story of Bailegangaire and how it came by its appellation", is ambitious, resonant and cunningly constructed (as I discovered the next morning). But watching it is a mild form of torture. On stage, a senile woman Mommo (Rosalind Linehan, acting forcefully from the waist up) lies in bed eating food out of a mug and chatting to imaginary characters at the end of her bed. She is cared for by one granddaughter, Mary (an impressively stoic Brid Brennan, padding round the kitchen in gumboots), and visited by another, Dolly (Ruth McCabe), who is pregnant and wants Mary, her sister, to look after the baby. Mommo has a story to tell and no one will stop her. This three-hander runs two hours and 40 minutes. In James Macdonald's slow, brooding production - with its low-level lighting and herbal cigarettes (whose sickly wafts have replaced the smell of greasepaint as theatre's distinctive odour) - the claustrophobia got to me more than the play.

There was more confinement and recycling of painful stories in Out Cry, first performed at the Hampstead Theatre Club in 1967, when it was The Two Character Play. Tennessee Williams then rewrote it three times. (It was, he said, "close to the marrow of my being"). Horribly close. Cheek by Jowl premieres this latest version of a story of an actor and an actress, a brother and sister, who find themselves deserted by the rest of the company, and end up performing to each other.

This is minor Williams. In Tim Walker's highly charged production it is also wearyingly introspective. It's hard to find a point of entry. As the actress Claire, Sara Stewart has the taut vulnerable histrionics for a Williams heroine ("I never take uppers before the innerval"), but she and the equally neurotic Jason Merrells (Matt in Casualty) keep hitting the same notes. What is reality and what is illusion? Done this way, the subject seems desperately fey. Anyone who's already sitting in a theatre has worked out the difference.

'Caucasian Chalk Circle': Olivier, SE1 (0171 928 2252), to 18 Jun; 'Bailegangaire': Royal Ct, WC2 (0171 565 5000), to 17 May. 'Out Cry': Lyric, W6 (0181 741 2311), to 17 May.

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