Mutabilitie at the National Theatre, Cottesloe

“Well, they say every generation rewrites history,” sighed the woman next to me during the interval to Mutabilitie. Certainly, playwright Frank McGuinness hasn t hesitated in doing so. What a pity his liberal application of artistic license hasn t produced a more entertaining evening. Puzzling, dense, ludicrous and, at three and a half hours, unbearably long, yes. But entertaining? No.

The action occurs in Ireland at the end of the Munster Wars of the 16th century. As his nugget of actual fact, McGuinness latches onto poet Edmund Spenser (Patrick Malahide) who did spend many years in Ireland in a variety of official posts. From there, the script degenerates into a dark world of xenophobia and conspiracy populated by Spenser s bitter aristocratic wife (Diana Hardcastle), his porcelain looking children, his two-faced Irish servants, a band of local rebels led by a mythic king and queen, some captive English actors and... Shakespeare (Anton Lesser).

Assuming you can swallow the idea that Shakespeare visited Ireland at all, of which - no surprise - there s no historical evidence, you ll have the opportunity to chew on some even more alarming fat about the bard. Shakespeare the closet Catholic, Shakespeare the idiot (“he s never had a thought in his head” says one of the actors in his band), Shakespeare the fraud (“he s only allowed to stay because he writes down what we say”), Shakespeare the meowing homosexual (he allegedly has a feline fixation), Shakespeare the aspiring civil servant (he wants to chuck in playwriting for service to the queen) or, perhaps most preposterous of all, Shakespeare the messiah. The evil-looking, Irish seer, known as The File (Aisling O Sullivan), believes that Shakespeare, through this magical English invention called ‘theatre , can raise the Irish dead and bring the war-torn country back to life. A tall order for a man who can t even write his own Hamlet.

The players do the best they can with some pretty ridiculous parts. With the exception of O Sullivan, that is, whose heavy-handed performance is beyond ridicule in her switches from docile servant to seer. The File, with electrified hair and a voice that plummets the octaves, seems like an understudy for an Exorcist revival.

Really, the best thing about this play is Monica Crawley s striking set. Gone is anything resembling a stage, never mind a proscenium arch. A stream flanked by mossy, rock banks and skeletal trees runs down the middle of the stalls. Too bad McGuinness Shakespeare couldn t have drowned in that stream at the opening scene and saved us a lot of torment. Now that would have been a history worth rewriting.

Terri Paddock, November 1997