THE CRITICS : Mrs Peel kicks new life into Brecht

THEATRE
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DON'T mess with the new Mother Courage. She has not lost the Avengers touch. Diana Rigg won't do a high kick but she will wallop whoever annoys her. At one point she cuffs everyone onstage. When she's not using physical force, she delivers salty put-downs. She's sharp, and she's blunt, too: well, she's a survivor. The chaplain consoles himself that "We are all in God's hands". Rigg replies, emphatically, "I wouldn't say things were as bad as that."

Diana Rigg returns to the National in Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children after a 17-year absence and fills the epic stage of the Olivier through sheer force of character. War is on, Mother Courage is in business, dragging her canteen round 17th-century Europe, and rarely has an actress been busier. Rigg overwhelms us with quickness, vigour and stamina. In a coarse red dress, headscarf, thick belt and boots (as dirty as her laugh), she juts out her chin, and barks out profanities in her native Yorkshire accent. When Rigg does sit down, to pluck a chicken, smoke a pipe or swig a brandy, she looks a fit subject for a monumental sculpture.

Modern audiences, aware that Brecht first conceived Mother Courage in the late Thirties as an explicit anti-war play, may fear an outdated lecture or sermon. Here, they would be wrong. David Hare has written a superbly combative new version, that bristles with paradox, irony and scepticism. Compare random passages from an academic translation with Hare's version and you'll see that, like one of those soda machines, he has taken a bottle of still water and put in the fizz.

Hare, and director Jonathan Kent, leave out the Brechtian trademarks - the placards, dates and pocket descriptions of what we are about to see: devices that can become as stale as the conventions they once undermined. With acting like this, Kent also has the rare good sense to limit the designs. He still overemploys the drum revolve which again and again lowers the cart out of sight and then, after the scene change, brings it back. A cart Mother Courage can drag across Europe ought to be able to make it on and off the Olivier on its own.

But Kent and designer Paul Bond touch in the settings for the 12 scenes lightly and effectively: smoking stoves, distant battles, vistas of cemeteries or rows of autumn trees. The actors sing Jonathan Dove's atmospheric new songs without microphones, sometimes unmelodically, sometimes raucously. This is unsentimental, impassioned music, on a human scale. Singing becomes the best way of saying something important, not a means of turning Mother Courage into Les Miserables.

Kent surrounds Rigg with a strong supporting cast. Geoffrey Hutchings is hilarious as the cook, David Bradley and Lesley Sharp very impressive as the chaplain and the mute daughter, Kattrin. The evening is a triumph. The National would be mad to let Diana Rigg leave the building till she has signed up for her next big role.

The stalls at the Vaudeville were packed with comic talent. Victoria Wood chatted to Maureen Lipman. Derek Nimmo was buying a programme, Ned Sherrin and Ronald Harwood were looking for their seats. Each had written a sketch, speech or song that was now turning up in The Shakespeare Revue. Shakespeare is a good subject for a revue. The man is everywhere. Everyone agrees he is a good thing. The Prince of Wales likes him. What bigger target do you need? Just as The Day Today caricatures the way the media presents the news, so this could take a really close look at the way the theatre, academia and the heritage industry bend Shakespeare to their own purposes.

The Shakespeare Revue doesn't quite do this. This affectionate revue has four actors and a pianist, in black tie and ball gowns, seated on cabaret chairs in front of a neon display of the title on what looks like a German Bierkeller. They present an exhaustive and frequently very funny selection of other people's material. Some contributions are new, some go back to the Twenties. Janie Dee sings expertly in a variety of styles. Christopher Luscombe flicks through his notepad and delivers withering director's notes. The genial Martin Connor strikes just the right note of bombast as "Sir" in The Dresser. Susie Blake is a hilariously formidable Lady Brabantio interviewing Othello about his background in a very apt new spoof of Lady Bracknell, by Perry Pontac. These are delightful moments.

But the intrinsic structural problem of a revue - where is it going? why in this order? - is never cracked. What this enjoyable, if soft-edged, evening lacks is any complicity between cast and material. It is not the vehicle for an attitude or point of view.

Jude Kelly's production of King Lear, reviewed here by Robert Hanks when it was in Leeds, has transferred to the Hackney Empire. Warren Mitchell has a bald head, huge white beard and the quixotic, mischievous qualities of a vain old man who is accustomed to getting his own way. He is gleeful when Cordelia first refuses to play along and pay him homage. He thinks it's part of the game. But the old man's sprightliness collapses through the evening into muted bafflement.

This Lear looks as if it's going to follow a populist approach, delivering scenes in clear, illustrative images that mix up references to past and present - whatever helps get the story across. When Mitchell divides up the kingdom, the country is spread out on a table that divides into three. Goneril (Tricia Kelly) and Regan (Alexandra Gilbreath) each walk away pushing a slice of the table. When Kent (Stephen Simms) comes back in disguise he has a punky green hair-cut and tattooed body. We know Edmund is unhappy because we discover Damien Goodwin in his bedsit trying to suffocate himself with a plastic bag.

As Lear progresses, and the ideas queue up for attention, what is meant to enlighten only obscures. As the fool, Toby Jones leaps skittishly around the king with a weather-vane on his head; Michael Cashman, as Albany, is a tense, conscience-stricken figure. He wears a brown civilian suit and wields a medieval sword (why not a revolver?). It's hard to see the logic in this production. It's hard, too, to hear some of the lines. Some are lost to over-emoting, some to the competing sounds of the storm, some to the Empire's acoustics, and some disappear into Mitchell's beard.

'Mother Courage and Her Children': Olivier, SE1 (0171 928 2252). 'Shakespeare Revue': Vaudeville, WC2 ( 0171 836 9987). 'King Lear': Hackney Empire, E8 (0181 985 2424).

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