Royal National Theatre (Olivier), London SE1
Opened 1 October, 1992

Tony Harrison's meditation on armaments pioneers in the Great War is not a play, it's a "theatre piece". Except it's neither particularly theatrical nor of a piece. A strong visual priority is evident, both in Jocelyn Herbert's design (simple, bare, monochrome stage against which performers are clad in solid slabs of colour or tuxedos) and in Harrison's relentless striving after spectacle. But spectacle isn't theatre, and it certainly isn't drama. The ooh-aah conjuring and tableaux pull in the opposite direction to Harrison's verse.

In fact, so does the relentlessness of the verse itself. Fair enough, so Alfred Nobel and Fritz Haber (the "inventor" of poison gas) were both allegedly poets manqués; fair enough, but that curious though minor observation is given a form which tramples underfoot everything of significance that strays into its path, with all the repetitive dadadadada lethality of Hiram Maxim's famous gun (although Harrison's metre doesn't sound as regular). The verse only ever becomes poetry in a haunting threnody sequence, climaxing with the prophecy that Haber will not "live to see his fellow Germans use/His form of killing on his fellow Jews", but this powerful mourning accounts for less than 15 minutes out of 160 or so.

As for the magic... Tom Stoppard used the metaphor of conjuring tricks in Travesties, made the point in two minutes and went on to present other perspectives; but Harrison's Big Idea is that arguments about the "advances" of these weapons (their very power, supposedly, would necessarily make wars much shorter and thus paradoxically save lives) are mere moral hocus-pocus. And so we get magic wands, and silks changing colour in chemistry lectures, and disappearing tricks (performers vanishing and reappearing in the auditorium on more than one occasion) ad bloody nauseam even (at the end of a prolonged and bolted-on Chinese conjuring routine by Arturo Brachetti) a magically produced dove, just in case we haven't spotted the peace-war opposition being invoked here.

The inherent illusion of the piece itself is that it is written for a score of women (and two men), but written and directed by a man, and in such a way that performers of the calibre of Paola Dionisotti, Jenny Galloway and Sara Kestelman simply aren't given the opportunity to show their mettle the strategy often verges on puppetry. Like other recent NT productions (Lepage's Dream, Daldry's Inspector), Square Rounds is an audacious conception. Unlike them, it is a catastrophic failure.

Written for City Limits magazine.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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