The story of a small-town judge trying a case of petty crime which he has committed himself, the play starts with the schoolmasterly ambition of reconciling Shakespeare with the Greeks: an Oedipal action with a Falstaffian hero. We know about Judge Adam's guilt from the start, so there are no surprises there. And as the events unfold under the gaze of a visiting assessor, who pounces on Adam for every legal irregularity, neither is there any scope for comic misrule to invade the court. Eric Bentley made an interesting adaptation of the play by transferring it from Utrecht to Puritan New England and exposing the godly assessor as a more deadly scourge than the old Adam. But there were still not many laughs. As for the Deut-sches Theater version that visited Edinburgh two years ago, the sight of a thick-witted yokel lumbering into trap after authoritarian trap was closer to bear-baiting than any kind of theatre.
Unless Adam has some chance of winning there can be no play: but as Kleist has stacked the cards, he has no chance. That was my opinion until he popped up as a Skipton worthy in Northern Broadsides' premire of Blake Morrison's The Cracked Pot where, at last, it emerges that the Germans do have a sense of humour. "Scuttin' toptails," Barrie Rutter exclaims (or words to that effect), seeing his flayed visage in the mirror after his night on the tiles. Readers of Morrison's poem "Ballad of the Yorkshire Ripper" already know the expressive kick of that dialect, even when you have to guess the meaning. But Morrison's main achievement is structural. Leaving Kleist's narrative intact, he has also turned it into a trans- Pennine drama by bringing in a Lancashire judge as the assessor.
This innovation permeates the narrative - beginning with the broken jug itself, whose aggrieved owner (Kate Rutter) describes it to the court as an heirloom depicting scenes from the Wars of the Roses: and what follows is a continuation of the York-Lancastrian battles into 18th-century comedy. Already, you see, Adam has his chance as a local hero challenging an alien intruder. Add to that the fact that the Mancunian Judge Walter (John Branwell) is a genial colleague rather than a stern overlord, and the contest comes down to equal terms.
If anything, the odds are now in Adam's favour. He is, of course, a rogue who has to lose in the end: justice has to be done to the young couple (gutsy performances from Cathy Sara and Andrew Cryer) he has smeared. But at the same time his chutzpah is irresistible, as he wriggles out of every hopeless corner and manages once again to lay the guilt on someone else. It is not all escapology. Adam's main line of defence is that he is an expert on local customs which no outsider can be expected to grasp.
As Rutter directs the piece, this is no lie. His Skipton neighbours treat him with affectionate respect. And as Rutter plays him, hobbling about on a club-foot (shades of his Richard III), showing off a bald head with bumps the size of duck-eggs, he demonstrates the typical Yorkshire game of hiding acute intelligence and learning under a buffoonish mask. He quotes Wordsworth, he has legal precedents at his fingertips, he offers the choicest local ale and Wensleydale cheese. No wonder the probing outsider almost falls under his spell. Look at this Yorkshire fable, and you begin to understand the spell of other far-flung local heroes from Jacques Mdcin to Winnie Mandela.
In Agamemnon's Children Laurence Boswell winds up his regime at the Gate with a Euri-pidean grand-slam: Elektra, Orestes and Iphigenia, played with the piercing intelligence he brought to Hecuba two years ago. Anthony McIlwaine's astounding set creates an epic stage within the tiny space - scrap-timber amphitheatre, tragic doorway with trick drawbridges, and two sepulchrally illuminated gangways that extend the acting space to the full length of the house. The production hits its limits with the Chorus, who (as in Hecuba) compensate for restricted movement with harmonised song (a ragout of organum and Gospel) which effectively obliterates the text. I have no other reservations. Passion, above all from Sara Mair Thomas's starved, razor-cropped Elektra, comes over with a searing honesty unfakeable at point-blank range. Even more potent are the prolonged Euripidean ironies (highlighted in Kenneth McLeish's translation) of impending family reunions and weaselly arbitrations by the gods. Characters flash into existence, fully formed: Thalia Valeta's Helen, armour-plated behind her radiant smile; Etela Pardo's long-sufferingly overdressed Klytemnestra, complaining that she has to oblige everybody. The tone is often comic, particularly from Barbara Flynn's Iphigenia, reluctantly slumming it as a priestess among the barbarians. Not designed as a trilogy, the plays still perform a tragic arc with the concluding revelation that, for the Greeks, tragedy could have a happy ending.
Judd Hirsch, a fine American actor with the unapologetic aggression and wily comedy of Eli Wallach, makes his London dbut in Herb Gardner's Conversations With My Father at the Old Vic, playing 30 years in the life of a Jewish tavern owner who never made the break from Canal Street to uptown Manhattan. Alan Ayckbourn's production (transferred from Scarborough) gives Hirsch the chance to age, show parental grief, play the overbearing father, and work through the whole emotional spectrum of an immigrant Jew setting out to succeed as a red-blooded New Yorker. Apart from some excellent Yiddish jokes there is not much else to be said for the piece, which takes an hour to declare its story, and entangles itself in needless memory-play complications for the sake of a final showdown between the protagonist and his writer son. The son has made big bucks with novels about a Jewish innkeeper embodying "the essential charm of New York's ethnic street life", which is more or less Mr Gardner's own ingratiating approach.
Even when it first appeared in 1973, when Terence Rattigan was out in the cold, there was no missing the fact that In Praise of Love ranks among his most unsparing work on the penalties of English emotional repression. I do not think the expanded version improves on the original. But in Richard Olivier's revival the tensions between Peter Bowles, as the emotionally illiterate writer, and Lisa Harrow, as his dying wife, are as engrossing and unsentimentally heart-searching as ever.
`The Cracked Pot': West Yorkshire Playhouse, 0532 442111; `Agamemnon's Children': Gate, W11, 071-229 0706; `Conversations With My Father': Old Vic, SE1, 071-928 7616; `In Praise of Love': Apollo, W1, 071-494 5070.Reuse content