First Night: Stage right for Richardson's rare outing

Aunt Dan and Lemon Almeida Theatre London

MIRANDA RICHARDSON makes rare, but always striking forays on to the English stage these days. One of her most recent appearances was at the National in Wallace Shawn's The Designated Mourner, a paranoid apocalyptic vision of an America where the elite had been overthrown in a violent uprising, prompting the query: how, in such circumstances, would the old wealth-buttressed cultural values survive, if at all?

Richardson returns now, bringing her distinctively disturbed authority and troubling translucence to Tom Cairns's compelling and stylish revival of an earlier 1985 play by Shawn, Aunt Dan and Lemon.

Here, the scenario is less luridly conceived but the questions raised are just as sensationally couched. The drama focuses on the intense and warping relationship between a susceptible young girl, Lemon, and Aunt Dan (commandingly played by Richardson), who was a charismatic right-wing American friend of her parents and an Oxford don.

The piece is cast as a memory play with Glenne Headly's Lemon, now a listless solitary, subsisting on a meagre private income, revisiting scenes from her childhood like an outsider. The proceedings include a lengthy defence of the Vietnam policies of Henry Kissinger which is delivered by Richardson with a hilariously obsessive dogmatism and a God-give-me- patience incredulity that anyone cannot see what a selfless angel he is in agreeing to use force so that other people don't have to.

It ends, after she has died, with Lemon, in a quietly deranged echo of her style of logic, defending the Nazi extermination of the Jews to the audience. The one essential difference between the Nazis and other people, she insists, is that the former did not fool themselves with any fantasies about compassion.

The questions the play addresses are: what draws intellectuals to extreme right-wing positions and why is it easier for the right to seduce people by making a show of being more "honest" with themselves than liberals? It's a trick they pull off by obscuring the fact that "honesty" is not a self-sufficient virtue.

Exploring these matters, the play certainly exerts a powerful grip and Cairns's incisively acted production is immensely skilful, with its revolving scrim that provides a milky, shifting barrier between present and past, its dreamy snatches of death- loving late Romantic music and its kinky red-lit scenes involving a party girl whose recognition of the necessity for violence (she strangles one of her tricks during a sex game) erotically stimulates Dan.

Finally, though, Shawn's constitutional inability to think in anything but extremes leaves me dissatisfied with both drama and argument. There is a brilliant work about the malign effects on young minds of a charismatic Fascist teacher, but it's not Aunt Dan, it's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

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