Theatre: When all the world's on stage

The critics

The theatre newspaper The Stage, which has a reputation for mentioning as many cast members as possible (well, it helps sales), will have its habit tested with Les Danaides, an international touring production, which last week played the draughty expanse of the Birmingham Indoor Arena (next week, it moves to the Fruitmarket in Glasgow). Les Danaides has a cast of 107.

The story demands it: 50 young women, daughters of Danaus, flee North Africa to escape the clutches of 50 male cousins, the sons of Egyptos, who want them as wives. The Danaides arrive on the shores of Greece looking for asylum. The Argive King, Pelasgos, finds him-self faced with a human- rights issue and an immigration problem. Soon after, the 50 hot-blooded cousins arrive and all hell breaks loose.

Of the 70 plays Aeschylus wrote, only seven survive. One of those, The Suppliants, is the first in the Danaid tetralogy, the other three of which have been (for the most part) lost. The Romanian director Silviu Purcarete has recreated this tetralogy filling in the missing bits. The result is Greek plays performed in French by Romanians. The result is also the most visually stunning production of the year.

Purcarete pushes community drama - or communities drama - on to a scale that matches the size, grandeur and (paradoxically) the economy of Aeschylus. In Purcarete's hands, large groups are not the traditional lumpen mass but a vast liquid pictorial force. The 100 actors are raw material, with which he conjures up one set-piece after another.

Numbers count. Footsteps, cries, whispers and sighs ripple out across the stage: we might be caught in a hall of mirrors. Whole nations seem to occupy the stage. Each Danaid has a suitcase and Purcarete turns these cases into high walls, a cemetery, and, finally, a row of collapsing dominoes.

After agreeing to marry their cousins, the 50 women sit by their cases, undressing, washing their necks with flannels. In a different light, upstage, 50 Egyptos have their stag party. It's an extraordinary spectacle. When the men join the women we watch 50 couples disappear under the women's nightdresses which then become small tents. Each tent contains a lamp, and as the Gods (with white faces, white suits or dresses), who have sat on the sidelines at illuminated tables, wander through this camp, the lamps go out one by one. That night the Danaides murder their husbands. In this sequence - epic and intimate - Purcarete matches the expanse and other-worldiness of his source.

A former car park, in a disused viaduct beneath an old Halifax mill, with a concrete floor, steel girders and the sound of dripping water: it's not somewhere that Franco Zeffirelli would recognise as a setting for Romeo and Juliet. Yet this is the home of Northern Broadsides, and their new production constitutes - along with Tim Supple's touring version of The Comedy of Errors - the best Shakespeare around. In sharp contrast to the larger subsidised companies, Northern Broadsides have a vigorous aesthetic, a way of doing Shakespeare that is revelatory.

Direction and design are kept to a minimum. There are very few lighting cues. The audience sit on two sides facing one another. The actors wear modern dress, but not the sort of stereotypical clothes that prejudge character. Quick and unsentimental, they never slow up the verse with naturalistic acting, which would duplicate emotions that are self-evident. They trust the text, carry us along on the rhythm of the verse, and, by making the arguments really matter, they transport us effortlessly from the gloom of the viaduct to the heat of Verona.

From the moment Barrie Rutter spells out the plot in the prologue this production restores the thrill of narrative: the rapid, jostling succession of events that throws up its own surprises. Shakespeare's promised "two hours' traffic" here comes in at a miraculous 2 hours 10 minutes.

The spartan venue, set and props are not gimmicks: they release new energies. Juliet's balcony is the top rung of some scaffolding. Mercutio and Tybalt fight with industrial mill tools: sickle and bale-grabber. At the Capulets' party they dance in clogs. Romeo gets out of bed with Juliet and puts on his black Y-fronts.

John Gully makes a very likeable boy-next-door Romeo, a ready target for the mockery of his friends. Michelle Hardwick is a remarkably forthright and impassioned Juliet, a young and voluble blonde (the sort of Leeds lass who wants to know exactly what sort of "satisfaction" Romeo is after). She knows her mind and we do too. If every student could see this startlingly clear-sighted production they would have no need for Coles' Notes.

After the deserved acclaim for Nuremberg, his powerful staging of excerpts from the Nuremberg Trials, Nicolas Kent revives that production with a new companion piece, Srebenica. This dramatises excerpts from the War Crimes Trial in the Hague this year, where the case was presented against Dr Karadzic and General Mladic. The testimonies relate to the mass execution of thousands of Muslim men in July 1995 following the fall of Srebenica. It was, in the words of the war correspondent Martin Bell, "the greatest war crime in Europe since 1945".

Kent uses the same technique as in Nuremberg: precise, understated acting in a realistic courtroom environment, where quiet-spoken, polite voices worry about the headphone and translations ("Can you hear me in Serbo- Croatian?") and interrupt the cross-examinations with old-world courtesies ("For your comfort, there's a glass of water").

Only 65 minutes long, Srebenica culminates in the testimony of a former member of the Bosnian Serb army, tormented with remorse, who was one of the execution squad ("To be quite frank, I'd rather not know how many people I killed"). It would be hard to overestimate the impact of hearing these events recounted in detail and in this manner (away from the blare of headlines and bulletins). No one leaving the Tricycle Theatre could fail to compare the world's reaction to what emerged at Nuremberg with the world's reaction to what happened only 15 months ago in a UN- protected "safe haven".

The joint production between Birmingham Rep and the National of Ben Jonson's comedy of deception, The Alchemist, which has now moved south, turns out to be a bit of con itself: a glittering cast (Tim Pigott-Smith, Simon Callow and Josie Lawrence), a baroque post-modern William Dudley set, plenty of high pressure "comedy acting" - and remarkably few laughs.

Theatre details: Going Out, page 14.

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