Theatre: 20-20 Vision

Northcott Theatre, Exeter

A unique experiment in repertory is taking place at the Northcott Theatre in Exeter. The Method & Madness Company, under the direction of Mike Alfreds, are producing five plays at the West Country venue under the banner "20- 20 Vision". The programme, which will run over three years, has the commitment of a group of 35 actors, designers, technicians, voice and movement coaches and administration staff. After each play is premiered at Exeter the company goes on a national tour. The season started with an elegant production of The Cherry Orchard and continues with Demons and Dybbuks, a colourful work drawn from the writings of Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Born in 1904, Singer left Poland in 1935 and moved to New York, where he took a job on a Jewish daily newpaper. His mother and younger brother were caught up in the Holocaust, and his knowledge of the outrages endured by the Jews in Poland informs much of his writing. Only someone who has witnessed persecution could write with such compassion, and most of his work seems autobiographical. His characters experience the cruelty of anti-Semitism, and are fearful even after arriving in America.

The 12 stories making up Demons and Dybbuks reveal the writer's fatalism and mordant humour. Singer, who won a Nobel prize for literature in 1978, is knowing, with a caustic wit; he has a clear-eyed awareness of human frailty and expects nothing better. He can be crude and terse, shocking in his acceptance, and bitter in his view of mankind. His language is rich and expressive, but he is never verbose. His view of human existence is that "man is God's mistake". The Almighty took his eye off the ball for just one second and look what happened!

Demons are creatures of myth, and a dybbuk is a spirit of a dead person that takes possession of a living body, but the production is also heavy with the weight of real history. The playing space is a square surrounded by layers of books. In pools of light the actors create complete family histories; complete strangers get involved in bizarre happenings and accept responsibility for matters over which they have no control. It seems as though Jews are regarded as a family, with special responsibilities for each other, wherever in the world they might meet up. In New York their tattooed numbers from concentration camps are shown like a badge of a doomed secret society.

The plots unfold in an exhibition of the art of storytelling. A story will end or simply collide with the next; each new tale starts cold and has to weave its own spell, and each has its own fascination. A mad woman calls at a flat for no other reason than that she came from the same region as the occupant. The flat occupant gets abusive phonecalls from the woman's husband and her mother, while the woman has an epileptic fit. A young man desperately tries to matchmake his mother to a stranger on a coach tour. Watching the play is like overhearing scandalous gossip on a train. These stories have an irresistible ring of truth.

The fact that this awkward scenario works is due to the power of the acting and direction. I salute the ten actors involved and the director, Mike Alfreds, for a delicately balanced production.

`Demons and Dybbuks' is at the Northcott (01392 493493) until 21 March, prior to a national tour.