THEATRE; Danger: poetry at work

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Indy Lifestyle Online
LET AN action painter loose with a bucket of dark-red paint and you'll end up with Ashley Martin-Davies's set for Slaughter City. It's a meat-packing factory, and blood is everywhere. In Ron Daniel's strong, graphic production, the heads of carcasses circle the stage on meat hooks. Here is the grisly life of the kill-floor. Workers cut out tongues from the carcasses' mouths and chuck them in trays. We imagine this to be the latest version of the "work play". The Tarantino version.

But it isn't. Naomi Wallace is a young American poet and playwright, who has moved swiftly from fringe venues (the Finborough, the Bush) to the RSC. Slaughter City - her fourth play - has some of the work- play subplots. The workers are in a contractual dispute with the management; Brandon (Alexis Daniel), a white worker in his twenties, pursues Roach (Lisa Gaye Dixon), a steady, no- bullshit African-American in her thirties (no bullshit, that is, from whites or men); the white company manager (Linal Haft) is a right-wing moron; and the decent African-American supervisor, Tuck (Rudolph Walker), has a crisis of conscience. In one way, still, it's familiar territory.

But Wallace's ambitions go beyond the work play into something strange and surrealistic. An elderly historical figure called Sausage Man (Robert Langdon Lloyd) enters with a sausage grinder. An androgynous Irish worker, Cod, seems to have been born in another period (a startling performance by Olwen Fouere). Ten minutes in, you're wondering what the hell is going on. Or if, indeed, you are in hell.

The big issues are quickly established - racism, exploitation of labour and gender relations - and on top of these Wallace turns the whole meat- processing business into a metaphor. "Whatever happened to that animal called hope?" someone asks. "First it got stunned, then it got slaughtered," is the reply.

I groaned inwardly at that exchange. Wallace has an eye for extreme situations, and uses striking images (in stage pictures as well as words). She writes powerful speeches, though they don't often arise from powerfully dramatised situations. But even with this excellent cast, her characters often sound like someone else. A woman worker stands close behind Cod and says, "I can feel the heat coming off your body like an August breeze." You hear Wallace at this moment, not the character.

Viola and Sebastian manage to survive the shipwreck in Twelfth Night, pitch up on the shores of Illyria, and - to judge from their costumes - head to the same gentlemen's outfitters. The rest of the cast in John Retallack's production for the Oxford Stage Company choose their clothes from a wardrobe that spans 400 years. Olivia (Lisa Turner), for instance, wears a Renaissance dress. Fabian (James Hinde) speaks with an East End accent and looks like a Dickensian valet. Maria (Janine Wood) wears a 1950s cocktail dress, pearls and beehive.

If events in this Illyria, then, take place at no particular time, in Matthew Wright's colourful designs they also unfold in no particular place. The full-moon backdrop turns silvery, blue, golden and red. Into this indeterminate world Retallack injects a good deal of comic business which doesn't always serve the play. To take one example: when Viola (Kate Fleetwood) has to duel with Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Alexi Kaye Campbell), they face each other, hold up their hands and play pat-a-cake. It gets a quick laugh, but it's psychologically bewildering, depriving what follows of comic danger, and weakening Antonio's next entrance.

The quantity of comic business is matched by the music. There are quite a few songs in Twelfth Night and this production adds more. Feste (David Brett) is a white-faced music- hall comedian, with tails and a plumed hat. He appears, with banjo or guitar, in scene after scene, like a busker working the carriages of a tube train.

Together, music and comic business flatten out the emotional highs and lows. Malvolio's time in prison, for instance, lacks the chilling sense of cruelty. And, throughout, the lines aren't really treated with the sense that they might be the main reason why we are here. The text can end up as the pretext.

The Summit shows inventiveness in a far more satisfying vein. Two actors - two brothers, in fact, Barnaby and Jonathan Stone - take us into the world of high-level political nego- tiations. The twist is that you cannot understand what these officials are saying. They speak an invented language. By caricaturing the rhythms, tone, verbal and facial tics, the Stones show us exactly what is going on. We can't follow the text, so we follow the subtext. The Summit emerges as an intricately choreographed event, with a soundtrack of posturing noises.

The setting is sparse: black walls, sharp lighting, lecterns, chairs and a conference table. First, they stand in spotlights, nodding and gesticulating, as they take instructions. Then they address us from lecterns. Then they argue about everything: whether to sit down, when to sit down, where to sit down. They do this with the manic energy of children playing musical chairs. Just when you wonder how they are going to get a whole show out of this, the negotiators themselves tire of their work. They relax. They chat. The show takes off in another very funny direction. It's only an hour long, but The Summit reaches dizzy heights.

'Slaughter City': The Pit, EC2 (0171 638 8891), continues Mon & Tues. 'Twelfth Night': Crawley Hawth (01293 553636), Wed-Sat. 'The Summit': BAC, SW11 (0171 223 2223), returns 13 Feb.