ASHES TO ASHES/BUFF
Riverside Studios, London W6
Opened 24 June, 1998

I once sat dumbfounded as one of Britain's most respected theatre critics vilified a play, not for being badly written or performed, but for glorifying what he pronounced a wicked political system, and hearing him declare that it should never be staged in this country on moral grounds. This is the kind of ex cathedra fulmination indulged in non-stop by the critic protagonist of Gerardjan Rijnders' Buff, who spends the entire play damning every show he has ever seen and in particular the one from which he has just returned, wishing he could see real drama onstage, whilst oblivious to the fact that around him, almost wordlessly, his wife is crawling into a sherry bottle, his son is crawling into a syringe and thence into his own mother's pants, and ultimately strangling the poor sozzled woman and topping himself. All the while, Buff yearns at length and volume for reality, but cannot see it happening just beyond his metaphorical pulpit.

The blackly hilarious Buff, dating from 1992, is the second of two plays presented (on separate bills but in the same evening) by Toneelgroep Amsterdam, who have rightly been lauded on their British visit (and not simply to prove that we scribblers can take a joke. The very name "Buff" in Dutch is Liefhebber, the name of a prominent critic; imagine a comparable British production, say at the Royal Court Upstairs, a few years ago of a similar play entitled Tinker). Titus Muizelaar, who plays the raincoated ranter with an accent as heavy as his agenda, also directs the first-house piece, Pinter's Ashes To Ashes (performed in Dutch with surtitles). Toneelgroep's standing may be gauged from the fact that the playwright had earlier granted them permission to stage the play before his own "première" London production in 1996; it is abundantly clear that his trust in them was not misplaced.

As Devlin questions Rebecca about the more squalid minutiae of her past, she alternately teases and blocks him with anecdotes which, did he but realise it, are infinitely more revealing and harrowing. Ashes To Ashes is the play in which Pinter melded his political concerns with his acuity at depicting sexual non-communication, and it is given a fine presentation here. Pierre Bokma's Devlin is well-meaning, but his complacency runs too deep for him ever truly to comprehend what he is being told. As Rebecca, Lineke Rijxman brilliantly erects a barrier of ice which both walls off the true depth of the character's pain and fails properly to conceal it. After a performance of such masterly control, her ineffectually fluttering bourgeois dipso in Buff must come as light relief to her.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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