Various venues, Bath / Edinburgh
, 2007
**** / ***
/ ** / ***
Here in one afternoon-plus-evening press-day package is all the astuteness that Peter Hall displays in programming his Bath summer seasons. For the matinee, the British premiere of a recent play by Athol Fugard suggests continuing political and intellectual engagement, and if that doesn't work it stars the venerable Richard Johnson. (A younger co-actor of his in a previous production once confided to me in awe, "I can't believe I'm working with a man who was married to Kim Novak!") In the evening, an early hit by the country's most produced living playwright, and by some reckonings even ahead of Shakespeare: Alan Ayckbourn.

Of course that is an overly reductive summation. For instance, it surprised me to see how even as early in Ayckbourn's playwriting career as 1969 he combined his talent for laughter with an unblinking eye at some of the everyday deceptions and tortures we put each other through. None of the three suburban couples here is doing more than rubbing tolerably along, and when they become entangled in a knot of misunderstandings about an extra-marital affair, it is only through the ambivalent charity of Ayckbourn the farceur that all three marriages survive. There are moments of outright domestic violence which were surely no less shocking forty years ago than they are today. And yet the laughs come easily, and they are no betrayal of the material.

A large part of the delight is supplied by Ayckbourn's characteristic Heath Robinson approach to dramatic structure: he takes a play apart then puts it back together in an unorthodox but fascinating shape. Here, two couples' living rooms occupy the same space on stage; Paul Farnsworth's design sets bourgeois tastefulness cheek by jowl with period kitsch, as actors tread the same boards at the same time, unaware of each other. The highlight comes in a dual dinner-party scene: two venues, two successive evenings, but played simultaneously and with the same pair of guests at each, swivelling between stilted chat over swanky avocado and marital bile which leads to poor William (Paul Kemp, who has become a first-rank actor of Ayckbourn) wearing a tureenful of inedible soup. Nicholas le Prevost is magnificently absent-minded as Frank, responding to a succinct explanation of a plumbing problem, "U-bend," with a bemused "Do I?" As his wife Fiona, Marsha Fitzalan rekindles some of the insatiability she displayed in the TV comedy The New Statesman. Alan Strachan's production is as efficient as ever, but it is the toughness and durability of the play itself that carries the day.

Athol Fugard's Victory is one of those plays that never quite grip either as dramas in themselves or as sufficiently weighty metaphors. A couple of coloured South African teenagers break into the house of a retired white teacher, the former master of the girl's now-dead mother. When he surprises them, the hot-headed young man takes him hostage; teacher Lionel continues to try to talk things out with each of them, but we know matters cannot end well. Vicky – Victoria, born at the time of Nelson Mandela's release and named for the sense of triumph at that time – sums up the continuing privations of many in the rainbow nation: "Because we got no hope, we don't care." But nor do we, much, for symbols sketched in to fill a bare hour of stage time. Nevertheless, Victory is a more satisfying work than another Fugard premiere, Exits And Entrances, currently playing on the Edinburgh Fringe. It is an overly formalised two-hander between "The Playwright", clearly a myself-when-young character, and an ageing Afrikaner actor-laddie to whom this surrogate Fugard acts as dresser in 1956 and antagonist five years later. The two characters spend more time setting up each other's monologic set pieces than they do in genuine dialogue, and the American actors' SA accents are rickety at best.

A more satisfying examination of the difficulties of "new South Africa", although still not without its problems, is Truth In Translation, also on show in Edinburgh. This is a complex portrait of the stresses faced by the team of interpreters working for the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the 1990s, required to translate harrowing testimony and callous unconcern alike and yet never to engage emotionally. A clutch of songs, sometimes seemingly inappropriate, sometimes heart-rending, have been provided by the legendary Hugh Masekela.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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