Stage, screen and in between

MULTIMEDIA

Matthew Sweet
Sunday 24 November 1996 00:02
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David Farr - bright young hope of British theatre, artistic director of the Gate - has a predilection for bending reality. His play Hove was a twisted tale of espionage and self-immolation in a Sussex boarding house, and as for Neville Southall's Washbag - well, you can tell that wasn't about anybody normal. In Max Klapper - A Life in Pictures, Farr pulls his focus on a post-war, pre-McCarthy Hollywood, using live and filmed performance to construct the biography of his hero (played by Anthony Higgins), a brutal auteur who takes the dictum that actors should be treated like cattle to its logical conclusion. A collaboration between Stray Dog, the Gate and British Screen, the play addresses the cinema centenary with its subject matter, its venue (the Electric Cinema) and its casting (Emily Lloyd, left, making her stage debut).

There's much to commend: Farr's dialogue is smart and strong - Kaufman and Hart spiced up with the F-word and an eyeful of Lacanian fun. Ben Hopkins's filmed inserts offer a stylish range of pastiche that reels from Resnais to Korda and Ed Wood. The performances, too, have a brassy energy, particularly Lloyd as Bella Kooling, the Iowa homebody clobbered to stardom by Klapper's visionary ambitions. Lloyd plays Kooling as a cross between Trilby and Peggy Sawyer, making engaging work of her transformation from hick ingenue to Hollywood ogress.

However, Max Klapper has problems: it's too convinced of its own novelty - an untenable position when everyone from Bernd Alois Zimmermann (see Music, page 11) to Tommy Steele has mixed these media. Moreover, the richness of the filmed material exposes the fact that the live action is all talk, and Farr's direction of events on-stage peculiarly 2-D. The Electric's screen dominates the action, impressive when lit, but otherwise a dead space marooning the actors on the fringes of the playing area.

Theatre's use of celluloid is often an attempt to disguise inarticulacy - the recent RSC adaptation of Les Enfants du Paradis is a case in point. Farr never uses film as a last resort, but his decision to leave depth to the screen tends to denature the action going on in front of it. In establishing the disjunction between the filmed and the "real" worlds of the narrative so energetically, he has evacuated visual imagery from the live medium, too often leaving his actors to wisecrack their way from the sofa to the drinks cabinet.

Electric Cinema, W11 (0171 792 2020), to 14 Dec.

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