The Critics: Death in life with Marguerite Duras, life in death with Romeo and Juliet

THEATRE
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
I knew from the French Theatre Season programme that Ionesco said the American director Robert Wilson was richer and more complex than Samuel Beckett in his use of silence. I knew that, according to the Encyclopedie du Theatre, Wilson created visions "to be contemplated behind closed eyes". I knew the author Marguerite Duras had written a novella, La Maladie de la Mort, that was here presented as a play. This was a theatre of images as opposed to that tired old narrative stuff. I was ready to watch from behind closed eyes, to tune into the complexity of the silence, to thrill to the twists and turns of a stage picture.

La Maladie de la Mort is certainly beautiful to watch. More specifically, the actress playing the "woman" is: Lucinda Childs slides on in a slinky ankle-length white dress with a 12ft train - a mesmerisingly angular figure, with marionette-like gestures (outstretched arm, cocked elbow, tilted head) and a voice as tensile as her movements. The luminous Childs gets hired for a few nights by the "man" (played with a languid weary anguish by the film star Michel Piccoli). Over seven tableaux, and 80 minutes, we discover how he can never possess her.

Wilson arranges these scenes with statuesque deliberateness against his own triangular designs: a combination of blank screens that change with the lighting, and others that look as if they've been scribbled on with charcoal. The two actors narrate the novella - sometimes over the loudspeakers - as much as they exchange dialogue. The crux is that Childs has spotted a fatal spiritual illness in Piccoli. "She didn't know, until she met you," she says, "that death could be lived." La Maladie proceeds with a cool aesthetic of its own: the environment is one of total control. The step-by-step delineations of the couple's failure to connect - her elusiveness, his inability to take possession of her - unfold with a choreographed and measured seriousness. It wasn't hard to identify with the couple's elegant plight. For the hermetic La Maladie embodies its own theme. I had as much trouble connecting with them as they did with each other.

Touring productions bring out the best in the RSC. After Tim Supple's lovely Comedy of Errors, Michael Attenborough provides a thoroughly engaging, robust and energetic Romeo and Juliet. As it makes its way from Tiverton to Sunderland and Bogota to Singapore, we can be cheered by the prospect that anyone watching it for the first time will almost certainly understand it. Attenborough sets the action in the 1930s. It's a good choice, keeping it fresh, yet steering clear of the silly stuff like mobiles, mopeds and AK-47s. His Verona is a verismo world of flat caps, dirty vests and knives tucked into belts. The other touches are fairly timeless. In the tiled piazza, figures pit olives, scrub clothes in a tub and doze in the sun. Cicadas hum, church bells chime: in another context, Richard Jones's warmly evocative set - with its green shutters and geranium pot on Juliet's stone balcony - would be the perfect setting for a new Fiat Uno ad.

This Verona isn't grand. The Capulets' dance comprises a string of light- bulbs, an accordion, clarinet and horn, and some local plonk. Considering how few people there are at this taverna-like do, it's a little dim of Romeo to be shocked that Juliet is a Capulet. But elsewhere the shift downmarket - the embourgeoisement of the Montagues and Capulets, so to speak - makes this love story intimate and accessible.

And gritty too. The lads know how to scrap, and Terry King directs some good rough street-fighting. I've never seen Mercutio (Chook Sibtain) look so insolently in charge during his fight with Tybalt (Nigel Clauzel) as he does here: pushing the firebrand away with a broomstick. It's solidly cast throughout: from David Lyon's fiercely paternalistic Capulet, to Richard Cordery's meddling and hungry Friar Lawrence, through to Jack Tanner - making his debut as Abraham - breaking the news of Juliet's death to Romeo with sober apprehension.

As Romeo, the punchily charismatic Ray Fearon has a flashing grin and a passionate heart. He's a major RSC addition. You can see the big roles ahead of him. Zoe Waites, in her second professional performance, is an urgently youthful Juliet, if (so far) a little too external in her emotions. These two are sexy and never soppy. One other point: he is black and she is white. I add this merely as a footnote. The rivalry between the Montagues and the Capulets is not a rivalry between blacks and whites. With this multi-racial cast (in this play, in the setting) the issue becomes an irrelevance. In its own way, that's another achievement.

In Tongue of a Bird, a strange new play by American actress Ellen McLaughlin, the excellent Deborah Findlay plays Maxine, a pilot who flies over the North American mountains looking for missing persons. She has been hired by Dessa (Melanie Hill) to look for her daughter. The journey to find the 12-year-old dovetails with Maxine's own journey to come to terms with her mother's suicide (at the age that Maxine is now). Maxine speaks with her maternal grandmother Zofia (Miriam Karlin), with her mother (Deirdre Harrison), who appears over her bed dressed as an aviatrix, and with the lost girl (Catherine Holman), who appears in her cockpit. At one point Zofia tells Maxine that a Polish ancestor of theirs was a witch. Yet another woman in the air. Neat. When it comes to the tidy arrangement of themes Tongue of a Bird is as heavily patterned as an American quilt.

Peter Gill directs his strong all-female cast with a customary spareness and precision which borders - with white-clothed figures shifting around the props - on the clinical. In William Dudley's set the various props are kept upstage (as if we were still in the rehearsal room). This delicate play, which fragments the drama into a series of poetic episodes, carries little emotional impact. We see the pain. We don't share it. Too often the literariness manages to be simultaneously nebulous and over- explicit. Maxine's closing remarks to her mother, when she speaks of "the terrible aching vastness that is your absence from me", exemplify the earnest flavour.

The mask company Trestle, whose delightful Fool House played at the Edinburgh Festival this year, have taken a gem of an idea from Ryszard Kapuscinski's Imperium, about the world overcrowding and man heading back to the desert, and commissioned a score from young composer David Horne. Beyond The Blue Horizon is an ambitious tale with inspired details along the way. This time Trestle don't draw enough energy from the creative constraints of masks. This mix is too rich: futuristic, surrealistic, and - finally - hubristic.

'Romeo and Juliet': The Pit, EC2 (0171 638 8891), to 15 Nov, then Stratford, then tours. 'Tongue of a Bird': Almeida, N1 (0171 539 4404), to 29 Nov. 'Beyond the Blue Horizon': Basingstoke Anvil (01256 844244), Mon & Tues; Crawley Hawth (01293 553636), Fri & Sat, then tours.

Comments