Theatre: So foul and fair a play I have not seen

Sue Wilson watches the `Scottish Play' come home and Heiner Muller flirt with Laclos
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Opening the Glasgow Citizens Theatre's new staging of the already superstition-fraught "Scottish Play" on Friday the 13th must have cranked up the first-night nerves by several extra notches, but director Robert David MacDonald and his cast made it through with no untoward upsets - although, equally, there was little else about this main-house production to lodge it long-term in the memory.

Apart, that is, from its remarkable economy. Shakespeare's 30 roles have been boiled down for just 10 actors, with many minor characters excised and other bit-parts cannily doubled up, while the running-time has been pruned to an interval-free 100 minutes.

Kenny Miller's design, it's true, sets off the drama in characteristically arresting style. Starkly elegant yet vividly atmospheric, it combines Gothic with futuristic touches to create an effectively out-of-time feel, its three long stairways framing reflective or translucent silver backdrops, artfully played upon by Paul Sorley's lighting. Despite - or at points, perhaps, because of - its bold brevity, however, the action unfolding within the set never seems to find its flow, with many of the cast seemingly struggling for a consistent handle on Shakespeare's rhythms. Some sequences seem over-hurried and under-expressed, while others are interrupted by long, awkward pauses, interjected as if to prove that there's no real rush.

MacDonald's male witches prove a smart device, though their formal diction and air of detached hauteur leach some of the desired necromantic potency from their appearances. Cross-casting, however, highlights the sexual ambivalence suggested by Shakespeare's reference to "beards", as well as enabling the three actors to reappear in many of the supporting roles, cleverly blurring still further the play's divide, or overlap, between foul and fair.

The production's central weakness, though, lies with its central player. Gerard Murphy falls gamely but ineffectually between the two main stools presented by Macbeth's character: neither is he forceful or charismatic enough for an anti-hero, nor is he the small man overwhelmed by events and a domineering wife. Not that Anne Myatt's witchily voluptuous Lady Macbeth lacks authority, but she does lack a clearly defined foil or focus for her efforts.

Elsewhere, "sturdily proficient" best sums up most of the performances; faint praise which reflects a prevailing haziness of characterisation and contrast - Stuart Bowman's Macduff being an honourable exception - and an overall dearth of synergy about the ensemble work. And maybe it's a petty-minded quibble, but in a Scottish production of the Scottish play, surely one might hope to find more than one Scottish accent?

Upstairs in the Circle Studio, meanwhile, something completely, bewilderingly - yet somehow compellingly - different is unfolding; although, if pushed, one could possibly draw some intriguing parallels between Shakespeare's and Heiner Muller's respective milieux of cancerous malevolence, desperate power-games and violent social disintegration.

A howling air-raid siren precedes the opening blackout, in an empty, bare-floored space illuminated by 300-odd naked light-bulbs studding the ceiling. In the darkness, there's an explosion, then the lights come up on the fallen, dust-smattered figures of a man and a woman. They are, it transpires, the Marquise de Merteuil and her erstwhile lover Valmont, the chief characters from Laclos's Les Liaisons Dangereuses, transposed to some mid-apocalyptic ne'er world where time is punctuated by further explosions, bells ringing to signal mealtimes, and sundry other seemingly meaningless, but inflexible, rules and rituals. Once again the pair are locked in a vicious, vitriolic battle for supremacy or submission - though who wants which remains teasingly ambiguous.

It's a frequently baffling piece, Muller's spikily aphoristic dialogue rarely deigning to link itself into anything resembling narrative, though the essential themes of sex, death, mortality, (a)morality, and the attempt to find liberation by embracing decadence and corruption all surface vividly enough. Quite why the Marquise, however, starts omitting all the Ls from her words during the play's middle section is just one of a good many mysteries, given the scarcity of reference to any present external world.

The sheer intensity, though, of Andrea Hart's and Gerrard McArthur's performances, combined with tremendous vocal and physical discipline, commands the attention even when you don't have a clue what's going on. Each strikes a beautifully counterpointing balance between the mannered and the manic, formality and animal ferocity; Hart all bottled-up, spilling over fury and seething lust; McArthur quieter, more urbane, but unquestionably just as poisonous. Rarely will you witness two such complete, controlled performances.

In rep to 7 March, Glasgow Citizens Theatre (0141 429 0022)