Riverside Studios, London W6
Opened 10 May, 2002

Strangely staid, and a little disappointingly intact. In an era which sees so much gratuitous high-concept "director's theatre", that might seem an odd verdict on a production. If I say moreover that To You, The Birdie! relocates Racine's Phèdre on a badminton court strewn with mobile commodes and that the distraught queen in question is given a brace of onstage enemas, then it may seem outright unbelievable. But this is the first visit to London in a decade by legendary theatrical deconstructivists The Wooster Group, and by their prodigious standards, it's a reasonable assessment.

The Woosters' trademark mixture of technology, bare-bones theatricality and overall playfulness is well in evidence. A video screen slides up and down to cover parts of the action, with performers shuffling their limbs around to match the images onscreen in front of them. Radio microphones are worn to pick up the noise of movements rather than words; for the most part, the players portray characters' emotional travails mutely whilst the dialogue is recited by Scott Shepherd's Theramenes into a microphone on a one-second delay. (Shepherd does a gruff impersonation of Willem Dafoe whilst the actor himself, as Theseus, is initially restricted to bellowing, "Look at that!" as he strikes heroic poses.) A video Venus looks down from on high whilst her fleshly counterpart (played by a different actress) referees the badminton matches.

Through all this, the story of the Athenian queen's quasi-incestuous desire for her stepson Hippolytus emerges with surprising lucidity. Unfortunately, this version of the tale itself cannot compete with the presentational style in terms of interest. Apparently director Elizabeth LeCompte was initially less than taken with the late Paul Schmidt's text, becoming converted only after work had begun following Kate Valk's appeal to be given the opportunity to play Phèdre. One can understand LeCompte's first reaction: the words are banal and prosaic, a deliberate decision but one that doesn't come off. The show's observations about role-playing and individuals' fitness for same, and about the gods matter-of-factly umpiring these games of love and death, are made on an intellectual level but do not lock effectively into such a flat script adaptation.

It makes for 80 enjoyable minutes, certainly, but the enjoyment is at the level of diverting whizz-bang gimmickry and oh-I-see desultory thoughtfulness; of the power either of the ancient story or Racine's version, too little shines through. The Wooster Group can torque works into astounding new configurations, as on their last British trip (to Glasgow) two years ago, when they mixed-and-matched a Gertrude Stein opera libretto with a 1960s soft-core dominance/submission movie. To You, The Birdie! is a far less audacious exercise, and despite all the transitory pleasures of the company's style, it feels it.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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