Theatre: Resurrection Blues and Embers

A star-studded cast get the Resurrection Blues while in Embers, Jeremy Irons and Patrick Malahide fail to glow

Resurrection Blues Old Vic, London SE1

Plenty of blues. No resurrection. Robert Altman coming to London to direct a play that Arthur Miller was revising months before he died would, you'd think, result in something extraordinary - and send the fortunes of Kevin Spacey's Old Vic sky-high. In fact, though star-laden (Neve Campbell, Matthew Modine, James Fox, Maximilian Schell), this is one of the most all-round incompetent productions for which an audience could be invited to shell out.

The sainted Arthur bears much of the responsibility. He thought he was writing a comedy: actually, Resurrection Blues is a flat-footed satire in which the targets (US commercialism and rapaciousness) are predictable and the jokes are plonkers. In a South American dictatorship, an impotent/ important (that's the best gag) dictator plans the crucifixion of a revolutionary messiah who has the knack of lighting himself up and setting the peasants' hearts on fire: every now and then the stage flashes with white light and a woman in a poncho toils across it with a burden. Then the dic decides to sell the telly rights to a US company, who will intersperse the martyr's dying moments with ads for athlete's foot. Love, of various kinds, brings about a different outcome.

Altman's production does nothing to help a floundering play. It's not just scenes that creep by, it's speeches, and indeed words, which, when their speakers aren't having difficulty remembering them, are fractured and mangled. James Fox has a unique relationship to his lines, painfully translating them into another language; he jams whole sentences together so that they become unintelligible and puts sudden emphases ('atom BOMB') where you don't expect them. Maximilian Schell breezes in with a cartoon version of himself: big trousers, robotic gestures, self-congratulatory wags of the grizzled head. Neve Campbell is at least clear. But everyone looks eager to scuttle off into one of the bunkers.

Embers Duke of York's, London WC2

Embers is blessedly proficient in contrast. But it's inert. There's an arena in which Christopher Hampton's attentive adaptation of Sandor Marai's novel might make sense. It would be an intimate, dark stage. There, two men - one a non-stop talker, the other a transfixed listener - slowly unwinding the history of their lives, their love for the same women and the friendship that survived it, might have the simple compulsion of storytelling.

But put this leisurely discourse into Peter J Davison's inflated castle design - big doors, vaulted ceiling - and require, as Michael Blakemore's production does, Jeremy Irons and Patrick Malahide to stand and sit awkwardly clenched, for most of the time in the same positions, with Irons rehearsing his limited range of gestures straight out to the audience, and you end up with a piece as stuffed as the average stag's head.

Set near Vienna during the Second World War, the play evokes the uncertainties of a sentimental male friendship and, through it, the dying moments of the Austro-Hungarian empire years before. Hampton spins things along with some deft phrases - Vienna becomes 'the tuning-fork of the universe' - but these have to sit alongside such preening snobbery as the idea of 'a natural aristocrat' (ie a woman who liked piano music and trees) and an unexamined sententiousness: 'there's nothing sadder than the cooling of a deep friendship between men'; 'the urge to be stronger - the most intense of all the passions'. It's hard to believe that the same man who penned the needle-sharp and subtle The Philanthropist thought that so much could pass without irony.

Malahide has little to do but look evasive. Irons, competent but unvaried, flutes away, with a bit of jaw-stiffening and syllable-lengthening to show he was in the army. There are a few splashy effects - lights going off and flames casting shadows - but this is really a conversation lost on the stage. The embers don't flare up, they just die down.


Susannah Clapp

The GuardianTramp

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