1 NOVEMBER 1963, Page 15

The Arts

Son et Lumiere

By DAVID PRYCE-JONES Hamlet. (National The-

atre.)—The Possessed.

(Mermaid.) — Cockade.

(The Arts.)—The Bac-

chae. (Lamda Theatre.) THE set immediately ob- trudes. A central arch and a thin ramp on the left rises to the full height of the stage; a spotlight playing almost in the flies finds the ghost. We crane upwards. Once the set has revolved once or twice, its limitations become fully apparent. It forces certain overstylised movements: for in- stance, Fortinbras marches his army up the ramp to stare nervously over the edge. To avoid its constrictions, people pop up their head and shoulders through an entrance in the floor at the front of the stage. To be or not to be began like something out of Beckett. We peer forwards. The set is also ugly and in the clumsy legs of the arch and the high trunk probing the roof, we come to observe a, caged elephant.

In full and typical Stratford contrast is the pageant which soon breaks around it. With banners and trumpets and all the royal colours of riches and splendours, the court has been set up by Desmond Heeley in the Field of the Cloth of Gold. The first entrance of Claudius and Gertrude is a silvery tableau staged to dazzle, a Velasquez scene.

All this was most self-conscious, but not as much so as the production. Nothing was missed in this full version of the play, every movement poised, every meeting phased, every crowd scene balanced. Such care and nuance detract by their very virtuosity, and I began to wonder what was happening to my critical faculties as they were soothed away. It was more of a con- ducting than anything else. It was not so much Hamlet as Don Carlos•, not Olivier but Visconti.

For this is grand opera. It is a spectacle. The words ceased to have any prime importance,-and I just caught here and there the titles of familiar books and plays as I might have recognised the beginnings of arias. Hamlet's soliloquies were passages of rhythm, not of meaning. The recita- tive was almost perfect, the chorus admirable, but the closing moments produced the most epi- grammatic Verdi. A display of fencing with high Renaissance spirit introduced the final quartet (alas, no soprano), who stood traditionally placed across the stage to meet their end in the soundest operatic manner.

Peter O'Toole was the lieldentenor to suit this interpretation. He has a fine appearance, even a presence, on the stage, which is enhanced by his virile. movements and his lyrical voice. This was a Hamlet to outsmart them all, a self- possessed, no-nonsense man, good in a tight spot. Sometimes he seemed to parody himself: as the court arrived for Ophelia's burial, one expected this broad-shouldered officer to step smartly forward: 'Major Hamlet of the Marines, sir, reporting from Scapa Flow.' As Claudius, Michael Redgrave was intelli- gent, compromising, too cringing to be a figure of evil. It was an excellent performance and no doubt it was a coincidence that I could not stop thinking of Boris Christoff. Poor Polonius was conceived purely as a figure of fun, a carrier of endless cans, a kind of Selwyn Lloyd in fancy clothes. Although so gifted a comedian, Max Adrian cannot make an understatement which is not a caper.

The one person who was never operatic, who stood out as an individual living and suffering beyond the gaudiness and the trailing glory, was Rosemary Harris. Sad and beautiful, she spoke her words from the heart and mind. At once a waif and a courtier, whenever she entered the scene, the human element and the tragedy came with her. This was real at last, and all the more unforgettable in the midst of Son et Lutniere at Elsinore Castle.

'The important thing is to personify the prin- ciple,' says one of the characters early on in The Possessed. It is the weakness and the fascination of the play that it does so. There is the tired old pedant and the dreamy Slavophil intellectual, the eternal woman and the passive girl, the anarchist, the parasite; in short, all the types who could ever lay claim to a principle. In dramatising the novel Camus brought out this intellectualising. A high proportion of the scenes are hammer-and-anvil dialogues in which the representatives of two theories clash it out. Action is mostly off-stage and the story is carried forward by the narrator, Grigoriev, who. is the homme moyen commenting on the world. Characterisation suffers, particularly as these are all true Dostoievsky people, pushing themselves towards extremes, and so exposed to melo- dramatic gestures liable to misfire outside the printed page. Yet there is also a redeeming energy, a tribute to obsession. In these three longish acts, a huge amount is crammed in, until we have surveyed whole areas of doubt and faith, and measured a range of motives and responses. As so often with the Mermaid, though, ambition has outstripped talent. What a pity it is that the swings are built so close to the

roundabouts. •

For the moment Charles Wood's work seems derivative. The first of the three plays collected under the title Cockade is a conventional exer- cise on realism, the second owes something to Pinter, while the third seems to have Sergeant Musgrave's Dance as its imaginative basis. This is not to decry Cockade; one must begin some- where, and Mr. Wood's talent matches his am- bition.

The realist play depends heavily on its mili- tary slang, which took me back all too vividly to the past, but remained inaccessible to the civvy bramahs around me. It is a sad little short story, and would have been artistically better if contrived remarks a la Wesker had been re- moved. They were false to the central incident. The second play was a suggestive fantasy which fused the sexual frustration of a teacher with his fascist dreams of authority. I'm not sure of the psychology, but it was cleverly done, and much helped by Norman Rossington's tetchy and babyish caricature of the teacher. The lodger upstairs finally lays his hands on the fetichist uniform of jackboots and blackshirt to dominate the teacher. The undertones of perversion be- tween the two men are left obscure and this lack of explicitness hints at the 'X' certificate behind the sick joke. The final play is a coup de thdatre, a military epic invented by bored soldiers in peace time as they dust uniforms in

a war museum. Sexual experience is equated with going into battle for the first time. War games, sex games, theatre games, all blend into a unity all the more appealing for its oddness. Mr. Wood has imagination, he has a sense for the theatre, and soon he will have a style of his own.

The Lamda Experimental Theatre exists to take risks and it is encouraging that it should aim at The Bacchae. Greek plays tend to creak the pseudo-classical clich6s out of the directors, all those brief white kirtles and sandals, bare midriffs and waving arms of the chorus. The difficulty here is the chorus of demonic girls who side against law and order but still have to provide the rational comment. They have been given some strong and quite melodious music, against which they besport themselves as sexy young girls on a spree. It worked for a good part of the time, but the new theatre offers greater possibilities.