Reviews: Theatre: How not to charm the birds from the trees

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Kenneth McLeish's `Orpheus'

Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, London

Nick Philippou's production of Orpheus impales itself on a paradox. This Euripidean play by Kenneth McLeish focuses on the harpist and singer whose god-given musical talents were so great that wild beasts followed him and trees bent down to hear the magical sound. It is thus odd to the point of perversity to include no live music-making on stage.

True, the piece follows the Greek convention whereby significant action (here Orpheus's winning back and then tragic loss of Eurydice in the Underworld) takes place offstage. But it's a bizarre extension of that to put the music - a beguiling cultural mix of Thracian idioms on Irish instruments - on a reductive-sounding tape. You might as well stage a play about Nijinsky where the dancing can only be dimly discerned through a scrim on blurred film footage. Couldn't Philippou have got round the budgetary constraints by assembling a cast who were also instrumentalists? The combination of canned music and unforgiving acoustic, when confronted with so bare a production, is rebarbative to a degree.

But if Orpheus is no banquet for the senses, it is certainly an intriguing finger-buffet for the intellect. Dressed to look as if they are participants in what Philippou styles "a peasant circus", the cast perform the text with absolute conviction, as well they might, for the always-talented McLeish has excelled himself in certain passages here. Take this empathetic report of Orpheus leading Eurydice from the Underworld and his disastrous last-minute disobeying of the injunction not to look back at her: "She's there, is she there/She's of you, in you,/ She's all you are,/She's coming, coming,/You're all she has,/You give her all she has,/The moment of giving,/You turn, you smile, she's gone."

I do not see how, in his chosen pared-back idiom, McLeish could have conveyed more piercingly the intense, almost light-headed reciprocity of feeling between the two, nor have presented more acutely the act of disobedience as the unconscious overbrimming of this imagined sense of togetherness. Orpheus turns to seal their pact and instead seals their doom. McLeish stresses the surrounding silence, but it's surely the silence of intensely heard music, recalling TS Eliot's great lines in Four Quartets: "Music heard so deeply/That it is not heard at all, but you are the music/While the music lasts."

Here, Orpheus responds to the catastrophe by denying the existence of the gods and asserting that art has to learn the responsibility of hymning a godless universe. Myths are what you make them. It is, excitingly and frighteningly, up to you.

To 6 Dec, Lyric Theatre Studio, King St, Hammersmith, London W6. Booking: 0181-741 2311

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