Southwark Playhouse, London SE1
Opened 6 January, 2005

Curiously, the defiant Web site does not list that country's most popular contemporary novelist Amélie Nothomb, whose first play is now being staged in London in a translation by its director, Natalie Abrahami.

Human Rites wears its play-of-ideas status proudly. It's winter in a city under siege. A professor of literature, his assistant and the assistant's undergraduate lover share a flat. It's bitterly cold and all the furniture has already been consigned to the stove. The only remaining fuel is books. Cue exchanges about the general aspects of book-burning, its peculiarities in time of war, what war does to humanity, the relative merits of various authors, what values we should aim to preserve and how, etc, etc., as well as the various power- and passion-plays amongst this particular ménage.

Packing all that into less than an hour and a quarter doesn't leave a lot of breathing space: matters of the mind and of the heart alike are dealt with directly, whilst all being grist to the mill of debate. There's a recurring motif of animalism: the Professor avers early on that we are all animals, but later uses it as a term of condemnation and horror, demonstrating that he's not without his own romantic notions of humanity even in extremis. Edmund Dehn gives a fine portrayal of someone less jaded than he cares to admit; Edmund Kingsley is an efficient foil as his assistant, but Miriam Hughes's callowness as the self-centred Marina may not, I fear, be primarily a matter of acting skills.

A note of curiosity is struck by Nothomb's decision to cite only fictional books. Like Jorge Luis Borges, she suggests authors and titles (such as the contentious Observatory Ball by Blatek) not by creating them directly but by alluding to them as if there were a mass of greater detail behind the mere mentions. Colin Richmond's design enshrines these fictitious volumes in a wall of open books, leaves akimbo, which is gradually denuded as the play progresses.

It's a thoughtful piece, but it brings no new insight to its various subjects. Compared to Zinnie Harris's Midwinter (which comes to the Soho Theatre in March) and its meditations upon fundamental aspects of identity in wartime and its aftermath, Human Rites is rather more, as the Professor would say, bourgeois.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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