More questions than answers

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The Royal Court could stock a shop with books written, published and reviewed by those who attended the world premiere of Ashes to Ashes, Harold Pinter's first play since Moonlight (1993). A hundred and thirty- four people crowded into the newly arranged Ambassadors Theatre, where the Royal Court has set up residence for two years, transforming a small West End theatre into two very small ones. I sat so close to the stage I could see how far we were into the play by glancing at the wristwatch worn by one of the two actors.

Ashes to Ashes opens in mid-conversation. The setting is an anonymous ground-floor room: two armchairs, two lamps, two sidetables, and a large window which turns from daylight to darkness. Devlin and Rebecca, a couple in their forties, are discussing Rebecca's sado-masochistic relationship with another man. Stephen Rea, who plays Devlin, wants details. He crinkles his eyebrows, turns his drink in his hand, and steadily pursues what turns out to be an extended interview. The one giving the answers has more control than the one asking the questions. "I'm in the dark," Rea says. Where we are, it's a lot darker still.

As Rebecca, Lindsay Duncan turns to Rea, then away, widens her eyes, catches the light on her high cheek-bones, and tantalises with glimpses of her past. Half the time she seems not to hear Rea and changes the subject. Or perhaps she doesn't; for her anecdotes approach some hidden trauma from another angle. The present only partially engages her. Hints are dropped of state violence, atrocities. In Dorset - yes, in Dorset - she saw people walk into the sea where they were covered by the tide. In a frozen city, on a station platform, she saw the man she loved taking babies from screaming mothers.

Her state is fraught. She tells Rea of "mental elephantiasis", where one mistake grows in the mind till it can think of nothing else. Devlin and Rebecca are fastidious in their use of language. In a pivotal moment Devlin picks up on Rebecca's use of the word "bundle" and the source of her own guilt and denial becomes more apparent.

Ashes to Ashes takes us on a mysterious, sinister and hypnotic journey. More and more emerges, without our ever being able to latch on to something that would count as a journalistic fact. Unusually, as you watch it, you get the sense of the characters revealing themselves to us at exactly the same point as they revealed themselves to the author. It's as if he were making it up as he went along - and only Pinter could get away with it. Yet for all its atmosphere of uncertainty, Ashes to Ashes is utterly sure of itself - poised, deliberate, concentrated - giving off an intensely troubled air of things going on, and things held back, too painful to speak of. Like a painting or piece of music, it doesn't explain itself. It simply exists: as masterly dialogue, superb acting and precisely focused direction (by Pinter himself). It's only an hour in length, so you have the rest of the evening to ponder what it is about. You'll need it.

We're in no doubt, as we enter the Olivier for The Oedipus Plays, that Thebes is in the grip of a plague. Within a circle of drums, with flickering flames, lie sickly figures, with skulls and skeletons scattered round the earth. Alan Howard enters down the blood-red walkway (he might be descending from a spaceship) with purposeful steps and careful gestures. His mission is daunting. To hold our attention while talking through a mask for three hours.

What's immediately exciting about Peter Hall's production is his uncompromising approach to staging Greek drama. All the actors wear masks. They don't speak to one another. They face the audience, communicating through voice and gesture. Those of us who didn't see this production at Epidaurus (where it opened) can still sense in its modern concrete counterpart of the Olivier some ancient spirits stirring.

They are, unfortunately, only lightly stirred. As Oedipus, Howard brings a woodwind section of his own to Oedipus: reedy and flutey, piping and trumpety. "I won't leeeaaavvve off!" he cries, fatally; across the evening, I found his voice too resonant, too beautiful and, ultimately, too theatrical. Greg Hicks is an impressively strange, other-worldly Tiresias, caked in mud, and led on eerily by a small boy, so tiny he looks as if he could barely have been walking when rehearsals began. Suzanne Bertish brings a dignified urgency as Jocasta and Pip Donaghy is a sharp, ironical Creon. Most impressive, in Oedipus at Colonus, is Tanya Moodie as the sincere and persuasively articulate Antigone. She catches just the right balance between ancient and modern.

Ranjit Bolt uses rhyming couplets in his new translation, which keeps drawing our attention to the rhymes and away from the sobriety of the events. The chorus flutter their hands in unison, shift from foot to foot in a mock march or fan out across the stage and then regroup. But they haven't the grace, technique or choreographic moves to take us to another, grander level. And some of the stage business is banal. I began to question whether we needed a new translation, and whether the two plays - one of which was never performed in Sophocles' lifetime - gained from being performed together.

In June this year, the novelist John Grisham supported a lawsuit against the film-maker Oliver Stone, claiming that Natural Born Killers inspired copycat murders. Ben Elton has taken this idea - that since everyone blames everyone in our society, now it's time to blame the artists - as the subject of Popcorn, his fourth book and his third play. I haven't read the book, but Popcorn, the play, is serious, topical and very funny.

Early on the morning after Oscar night, a famous director of violent films, Bruce Delamitri (Vincenzo Nicoli) - a cross, professionally, between Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone - returns to his snazzy Bel Air home with Brooke (Elizabeth Perry), a model he picked up shortly after picking up his Oscar.

Sex, on about the widest sofa you can fit on to a stage, is interrupted when a young couple who've been making love in Bruce's bed upstairs appear on the spiral staircase, guns in hand. They are the notorious Mall Murderers and - guess what? - they are Bruce's biggest fans. They know how many murders there are in his latest hit, Ordinary Americans (57), and quote admiringly from his scripts.

Other unfortunates arrive: the tactless producer (David Leonard), the greedy soon-to-be-ex-wife (Melee Hutton) and her spoilt young daughter Velvet (Emily White). The Mall Murderers alternate between awe at the celebrity status of their victims and glee at brandishing guns in their faces. They are casual about killing people and fussy about hygiene and manners. There's an electric performance from Patrick O'Kane as the crop- haired, gum-chewing patriotic killer, and his loyal girlfriend Scout (Dena Davis): "You don't know his nice side."

Elton skilfully advocates both sides of the argument, and more cleverly still dramatises his theme in as lively and theatrical a manner as one could wish. Directed with verve by Laurence Boswell, Popcorn manages to make the entire audience complicit in the debate. Most of the Nottingham audience was notably young. Not the woman in front of me. She left after five minutes. Well, it was a bit rude. Five minutes later, she returned with a hearing aid.

Theatre details: Going Out, page 14.

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