In the summer, His Girl Friday was a re-working of The Front Page, a massive hit for the theatre during Laurence Olivier's regime in 1971. Now, it takes a fresh look at Odon von Horvath's classic and influential piece of European theatre, premiered in Berlin in 1931 and previously staged at the National in early 1977, shortly after it moved to the South Bank.
Actually, in the way it combines an epic sweep with its acute revelation of intimate lives, Tales from the Vienna Woods resembles a more recent National hit. As with Owen McCafferty's richly populated Scenes from the Big Picture, of lives being lived in contemporary Belfast, von Horvath's play paints a beautifully detailed canvas of life in 1931 Vienna.
On a quiet street in Vienna's 8th District, there are three shops: a butcher, a toy shop, and a tobacconist/newspaper seller. Human emotion comes tumbling out of these establishments as Marianne (Nicola Walker), the daughter of the toy shop owner Herr Spellbinder (Karl Johnson) is betrothed to the butcher, Oskar (Darrell D'Silva), but suddenly falls in love with Alfred (Joe Duttine), who is at the time dating tobacconist Valerie (Frances Barber).
Though the diffuse strands of these stories take some time to come into focus, and the play - like the lives it reflects - is a little messy, director Richard Jones animates it with such rigour and vigour that it is always compelling to watch. Jones is one of Britain's most iconoclastic, and occasionally infuriating, talents, but like Philip Prowse, for him the devil is in the detail.
While other directors are content to create general, and sometimes all-too-generic, mood and atmosphere, Jones sees that every corner of the stage is completely inhabited. Turn your eye away from the centre of the action, and you'll find that the life of the play is continuing, as it should, elsewhere, too.
A superb ensemble cast of some 29 actors populate the daring, eventually driven drama with rich and surprising resonance, even allowing for some melodramatic excesses in the plot as it charts Marianne's slippery downfall until she's revealed to have become a stripper in front of her own father.
Gorgeously underscored throughout by the ironic counterpoint of Johann Strauss waltzes, Jones' production - making do with a necessarily threadbare design by Nicky Gillibrand - shows that big sets aren't necessary to command the massive Olivier stage: the sweep of human lives is big enough.
- Mark Shenton