Edinburgh Festival: Out of proportion: Paul Taylor on an updated version of Goethe's Torquato Tasso at the Lyceum

Paul Taylor
Wednesday 17 August 1994 23:02

For people who get impatient with art that is all about the problems of being an artist, Robert David MacDonald - the translator and director of Torquato Tasso, Goethe's play about the problems of being the great 16th-century Italian poet (and of being Goethe) - has an ingeniously disarming sales pitch.

Goethe wrote that his subject was 'the disproportion of talent to life'. In his long programme note, MacDonald argues that Tasso's predicament has a more general relevance. The play makes greater sense, he maintains, if we realise it is not concerned merely with the artist as social misfit, but with 'the fact that none of us is quite able to adjust to our social surroundings, and that it is our qualities of imagination, in other words, the artist in all of us, that makes it impossible for us to do so'. So take consolation the next time someone usurps your parking space that it's just the Virginia Woolf or Gerard Manley Hopkins in them finding a necessary outlet.

The untenability of this notion is amply demonstrated by the production, which remains stubbornly uninvolving for most of its two-and-a-half hours. Set in the sugary neo-classical colonnade of the Duke of Ferrara, where Tasso is court poet, proceedings have been updated from the Renaissance to the 1910s, resulting in some confusion over the precise cultural position of Henry Ian Cusick's initially very proper-seeming, wing- collared, spats-sporting Tasso. The fact that the lofty aims of his art are not appreciated by his patron is coarsely caricatured here by Andrew Wilde, who turns Prince Alfonso into a monocled chump, cartoonily tugging his manuscript from the perfectionist poet's hands.

When a production is reduced to signalling the Social Maladjustment of the Artist by having him klutzily bumping into the garden furniture (no co-ordination, these aesthetic types), you sense that the rethinking of Tasso in early 20th-century terms has been a trifle vague.

The play dramatises the antagonism and last-minute reconciliation between the poet and his anti-type, the man of action Antonio, while also tracing Tasso's decline into madness as he misinterprets his friends' attempts to help him. But the piece is fatally lacking in forward drive (working better on the page). It fails to take account of the black comedy that's hard to avoid when presenting paranoid possessiveness on stage.

Despite such touches as the string music that punctuates the procession of duologues and soliloquies, MacDonald's production doesn't convince you that there are formal satisfactions in the play to compensate for its low pulse-rate. The disporportion of talent to life is demonstrated in a piece that exemplifies the disproportion of rarefied intellectual content to dramatic life.

Lyceum, Edinburgh (031-225 5756). 7.30pm to 20 Aug; 2.30 mats 18 and 20 Aug

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