Theatre: Two ways to kill a marriage

The Ice House; The Relapse,

Citizens' Theatre, Glasgow

Offering a peculiarly opaque new twist on the classic eternal-triangle drama, The Ice House - writer/director Robert David MacDonald's 16th play for the Citizens' Theatre - last week opened a nine-production spring season at the renowned Gorbals space(s), newly refurbished courtesy of the National Lottery.

Over a seemingly endless - yet apparently inefficacious - succession of Martinis and Manhattans, arty academic Brian and his glamorously bitchy wife, Helier, attempt to divert themselves by conducting their marital games through Brian's newly hired male secretary, the enigmatically alluring Rod. Only gradually does it dawn on them that the tables are being expertly turned, by a manipulator even more skilled and amoral than themselves.

With its eponymous, puzzling, central symbol - the recurrent image of "ice sitting underground, waiting to melt" seems to promise resonance without delivering - it's an obscurely dislocated piece, both temporally, with its Twenties-style touches in dress and design, alongside contemporary allusions and colloquialisms; and contextually, offering no sense of any wider world beyond the trio's menage.

Highly mannered in style, but with a disconcertingly vulgar undercurrent of innuendo, MacDonald's dialogue shuffles fragmented references to classical philosophy and aesthetic theory with barbed, thinly veiled flirtation, duplicitous power-games and the odd bloodthirsty orgasmic fantasy.

All three characters' motivations - beyond the inclination to seduce, while keeping one up on the other two - remain essentially obscure, though seemingly malign, adding further to the sense of events unfolding somewhat pointlessly in a vacuum. The eventual outbreak of overt hostilities results in an abruptly hatched murder plot, leading to an ending simultaneously reminiscent of Hamlet and Agatha Christie. Maybe it's just trying to be too clever for its own good, but it comes over as a pretty empty exercise.

Taking the main-house stage a couple of nights later, Philip Prowse's production of John Vanbrugh's sardonic marital-discord drama The Relapse (aka Virtue in Danger), just over two centuries on from its premiere, displays all the poise, panache and pantomime bounce which one looks for in a Restoration comedy.

A slightly fuller sense of its substance, however, might have resulted had the Citizens' characteristically minimal programme notes included a little more basic background: the play was written as a deliberately cynical sequel/commentary to another play of the period, Colley Cibber's Love's Last Shift, at the end of which errant husband Loveless is reconciled with his staunchly loyal and virtuous wife, Amanda. His is the "relapse" which is in question here, his supposed determination to reform - passionately declared to Amanda at the outset - evaporating virtually the moment he's tempted by another illicit amour.

Awareness of this context darkens Vanbrugh's satire by several notches, balancing and rounding out the burlesque as Amanda's steadfast chastity is gradually weakened, both by her husband's neglect and the corrupting inducements of London high society.

This omission aside, however, Prowse's sumptuous yet elegant design, and the bold visual flair of his direction, frame a set of performances as fluently drilled as they're intensively detailed. Plenty of swagger and pace combine with memorably vivid character portraits, throughout both central narrative and sub-plot, the latter concerning an impoverished younger son's plot to step into his foppish brother's intended - and highly lucrative - marital shoes.

Themes of innocence versus sophistication, morality versus compromise and romance versus reality intertwine gracefully, as lascivious vulgarity vies with polished politesse. Jack Klaff puts in a splendidly camp turn as the aforementioned elder brother, Lord Foppington, enunciating Vanbrugh's richly double-edged prose in an accent fruity enough to give Kenneth Williams a run for his money, while Murray Melvin plays the shamelessly lecherous matchmaker Coupler with hilarious relish.

Yolanda Vasquez and Trevyn McDowell present a subtly judged contrast in the two female leads, Amanda and her worldly cousin (also Loveless's paramour) Berinthia, with Paul Albertson striking a compellingly acerbic note as the drunken servant/wise fool Lory.

Altogether a highly entertaining and dashingly executed revival, even if it does benefit from having its harsher accents picked out.

Until 31 January (0141 429 0022)

Sue Wilson

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