THE CRITICS: Back to the future again

THEATRE LANARK: Assembly Hall READER: Traverse A PLACE WITH THE PIGS: Traverse PIG BOY: St Bride's Centre
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TO ADAPT Alasdair Gray's novel Lanark for the stage is a bold move, since aficionados will almost inevitably complain of over simplification, while everyone else could easily be baffled by Gray's astral-planing imagination. In fact, Tag Theatre have produced a lively and sophisticated piece of theatre which offers links and explanations without imposing interpretations.

Of the two heroes, the most sympathetic is Duncan Thaw, an aspiring young painter in post-war Glasgow. Tom Smith brings out both the pathos and the humour in the character's precocity as a student, his painful ineptitude as a lover and his talented arrogance as an artist.

As Lanark, the young man trapped in the fantastical, benighted city of Unthank, Laurence Rudic presents a darker protagonist. He longs to see the sunlight and hopes for love with the cool, beautiful Rima, but until the final moments he lacks the vulnerability the character is afforded in prose.

On Angela Davies's understated but practical set, the action switches quickly between these two worlds. They are linked by a third character, invented by Tag, a painter who comments on the action in song throughout. The same cast pops up in different guises in both worlds, with particularly fine metamorphoses from Kern Falconer (a smooth, cruel Fludden in Unthank and a kindly old minister in Cowlairs). Tony Graham's production, however, minimises the contrast between the real and the fantastical.

The painter/singer lends a non-naturalistic edge to proceedings, but otherwise the Unthank world appears too solid and recognisable. Certain images, such as Rima's transformation into a dragon, lose their symbolic power and instead take on shades of B-movie tackiness. Lanark's story is reduced to a fanciful retelling of Duncan's, losing its potency along the way.

Ariel Dorfman's new play Reader is also set in both a recent past and a pseudo future. A government censor, working for an imaginary totalitarian regime of eco-fascists, is horrified to read, scene by scene and line by line, his own life unfolding in a script which he has to edit. The ending is as yet unfinished, raising the possibilities of exposure (years before, he committed his wife to a mental hospital while telling their son that she had died) or radical change. If he were to admit to his earlier "rewriting" of his own history, he could liberate himself from constant self-censorship and denial. But the idea fills him with terror.

The strength of Dorfman's runaway success Death And the Maiden lay in the compelling simplicity of its central moral question: can there be reconciliation without retribution? Reader has a similar conundrum at its core, but it is dressed up in trickery and formal contrivance. On Tim Hatley's revolving mirror of a set the question is constant- ly raised of who is real and who is fictional, who is is being deceived and who deceiving themselves, what is truth and what falsehood. Fear is clearly exposed as the chief motivation for our most cowardly and cruel acts, and censorship of others inevitably leads to censorship of the self. But meanings are reflected and refracted in so many ways that we lose all human sympathy for characters who seem to exist mainly to demonstrate the play- wright's cleverness. Ian Brown's production does little to help, featuring slick but mannered performances which struggle to muster emotion.

Fear is also the controlling source in the life of Pavel Navrotsky, who, in Athol Fugard's A Place With the Pigs, prefers hiding in a pigsty for 44 years to admitting to the authorities that he deserted from the army. Based, extraordinarily, on a real story, the play is vividly brought to life by Communicado, with Gerry Mulgrew in the central role.

Director Kenneth Glenaan's great stroke of genius is to introduce a three- piece brass band, which plays in the celebrations for the anniversary of the great victory, provides charming inter-scene interludes, and, with a cacophony of grunts and wheezes, evokes the unseen pigs throughout the rest of the action.

As the long-suffering, yet endlessly resourceful wife Prafkovya, Gerda Stevenson creates a sparky and moving foil to Mulgrew's clownishly deranged Pavel. Karen Tennent's wonderfully battered old set presents itself as a playground within which these two fine actors can play to their hearts' content. And the final scene of liberation is wonderfully uplifting.

More porcine humour crops up in Pig Boy, a magical rendition of some tales from The Mabinogion by Hexham-based Theatre sans Frontiers. This is a youngish company of the Complicite school, who effortlessly switch between the wondrous, the mysterious and the plain funny. Our hero Pig Boy is cursed by a wicked stepmother, to love hopelessly the unattainable daughter of a giant. Courageous through sheer naivety, he sets out on his quest, meeting along the way King Arthur (a Nintendo-playing ninny), Kay, the tough and tender Geordie knight, and finally Olwen, the tomboyish giant-daughter, who responds to her lover's dec- larations with a gruff "don't talk to me like that".

Beneath all the knockabout comedy Diane Richardson's play shows a keen understanding of the subtleties of Mabinogion symbolism, while John Cobb's direction (he also plays Arthur, the giant and Taliesin, the storyteller) never sounds a false note.

'Lanark': 0131 225 5756, Tues to Sun 27 Aug. 'Reader' and 'A Place With the Pigs': 0131 228 1404, to 2 Sept. 'Pig Boy': 0131 346 1405, to 2 Sept.

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