ONE OF Simon Gray's strengths is that he has never seen any contra- diction between writing plays to please himself and supplying tailor- made roles for leading actors. In his best work, the usual hierarchy dissolves, with no sense of compromise. So it is with his new piece, Cell Mates, but with such mutual deference on the threshold between Gray and his two stars - Stephen Fry and Rik Mayall - that nobody gets through the door.
Cell Mates is two things. It is a retelling of the story of George Blake, the spy who was sprung from Wormwood Scrubs by his fellow prisoner, Sean Bourke. It is also a duet for two specialist performers whose names define the extremes of courtesy and rudeness. Gray's production takes place in a no man's land between narrative and performance.
The opening (a winking reference to the partners' last stage meeting, in Gray's The Common Pursuit), consists of a literary encounter between Bourke, editor of the Scrubs magazine, and the lofty Blake, whom he hopes to enlist as a contributor. The scene's real business is to lay the foundations for their inseparable relationship. Blake's motive is clear: he wants freedom and a one-way ticket to Moscow. Bourke, a petty criminal with literary aspirations, wants to write a book on the exploit. It sounds like a comedy of blinkered self-interest; but that is continually displaced by the near-marital relationship that develops between the couple, and the power reversal that takes place when Bourke changes from liberator to dependant.
Having freed Blake from one prison, Bourke ends up in another when he is lured to Moscow and finds he cannot escape. With regular visits by two nicely-behaved KGB men, Bourke comes to believe he is in danger of death as a suspected British agent, and makes a panic-stricken dash for freedom, only to discover that the supposed threat to his life had been invented by Blake to prevent his story being published in the West.
It makes an absorbing cat-and-mouse game, staged partly in parallel scenes with each man secretly recording his memoirs. More to the point, it gives the two performers a chance to do their stuff. Fry's gently patrician manner inspires automatic trust up to the moment where he confesses, "spies betray people", in a tone of apologetic regret. Mayall comes as more of a surprise. The willowy blond hoodlum gives way to a stocky thick-accented Dubliner who plays the devoted underling to his KGB patron until the Moscow flat turns into a replica of the Scrubs; whereupon he wrecks the place, and when his host returns, it is to confront the old Mayall, snarling at him and gargling with sputum among the dbris.
The show thus offers some effective routines for the partners; and a fable on the nature of lying. What it lacks is any strong sense of reality in either depart-ment. A public issue has become the fodder for a cross- talk act. And in so far as any impression of an external world does emerge, it is to present Moscow in the 1960s as the kindly homeland Blake claims it to be.
To those who love him and those who don't, John Webster's name evokes a world of exquisite monsters delivering intoxicatingly macabre poetry. In his production of The Duchess of Malfi Philip Franks makes a rare attempt to humanise the Jacobean menagerie. On his stage, Juliet Stevenson appears as a loving sister with two difficult brothers whom she knows how to handle. In an opening tableau, the siblings appear in an affectionate embrace; and the first scene establishes her independence, and her power to control and appease them like spoilt children. After which, she has reason to think that the same tactics will safeguard her forbidden marriage.
Stevenson brings sensuality, fun, commanding authority, and guile to her role. She loves her brothers. She makes a man of an unusually unprepossessing Antonio (Joe Dixon) who comes to behave like a sultan in the bedroom. She has everything to live for. And when she loses it, she takes you with her into her final stoic fortitude. "I am Duchess of Malfi still." Instead of the usual note of triumphant survival, Stevenson delivers that pre- execution line in a tone of bemused dismay, with a despairing pause before the last word.
If her only family relationship were with Simon Russell Beale's Ferdinand - an inflammable brat, jolted into madness by incestuous jealousy - the reading would make perfect sense. Unfortunately it takes no account of her second brother, the Cardinal, who remains simply a villain. Robert Demeger's solution is to bring him so far down to earth that, when he speaks of the pangs of conscience, he seems to be complaining of acid indigestion. Robert Glenister likewise belittles the malcontent Bosola into a hyperactive roarer. Some of the cutting verges on mutilation. Even so, the production scores with its central relationships, and its transformation of Webster's waxwork imagery into stage spectacle.
For the opening of the late Ken Hill's Zorro - the Musical Joan Littlewood made her first return to her old theatre, the Royal, Stratford East, since the death of Gerry Raffles 20 years ago. She saw a good show; which, like Hill's best previous work, picks up a popular subject and makes much more of it than you expect. Zorro, California's answer to Robin Hood and hero of the old Saturday-morning film serials, seems an obvious candidate for camp mockery. He gets that from Hill, with Bogdan Kominowski plunging about in his fandango suit, and freezing in mid-combat at the thought of the girl he left behind in Spain. But superior sniggers are stifled by the quality of the singing, sword-play, and dance; by the fierily authentic music (Masters of the Zarzuela); and the muscular wit of Hill's lyrics.
The art of Hill's production (completed by Peter Rankin) is to keep you suspended between genres without disrupting the narrative. Music hall gives way to operetta and Christmas pantomime. The bow of a pirate ship smashes on stage. Zorro executes split-second changes between masked hero and resident fop. The corrupt governor and pirate chief (Michael Harbour) change from farcical villains to class enemies. Then comes the moment Hill always smuggles in. Zorro hands over a charitable donation to a priest who betrays him to the governor, remarking, "The Church has always supported strong government".
Behind all the fun and games there is a sharp splinter of political conviction. Zorro will always be needed, someone says at the end; maybe referring to his recent comeback in Mexico as Subcommandante Marcos.
The first half of Bearing Fruit left me wondering why Deborah Paige had bothered to stage a programme of short plays by women if all they had to offer were well-worn scenes of maternal nagging, bigotry, and childbirth. Things pick up no end in part two, with Lavinia Murray's transsexual wedding farce, in which the bride's parents turn up in identical dresses. Even better is Hanan Al-Shaykh's Dark Afternoon Tea (a translation from the Arabic) in which two women from Beirut meet as wan London immigrants and try to recapture the fun they had together during the civil war. Tremendous performances from Veronica Clifford and Anna Korwin. Al-Shaykh is a find.
`Cell Mates': Albery, 071-369 1730. `The Duchess of Malfi': Greenwich, 081-858 7755. `Zorro': Theatre Royal, Stratford East, 081-534 0310. `Bearing Fruit': Hampstead, 071-722 9301.
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