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Death & Harold Comedy

The return of Ariel Dorfman's gripping Death and the Maiden - for once, "it was sheer torture" is a positive critical response - to the re-named Harold Pinter (formerly known as Comedy) Theatre tonight is an occasion fraught with memories and possibilities.

In the latter category, will we now have a season of rape and revenge dramas to maintain the serious Harold Comedy tone: a revival of William Mastrosimone's Extremities, for instance, a real horror story that once starred Helen Mirren; perhaps even a screen to stage adaptation of Julia Roberts's Sleeping With the Enemy?

I can't imagine that Harold's ghost would frown too benignly on a revival of Dames at Sea on his new stage, though he might welcome a season of Tricycle tribunal plays, or perhaps a great dictator season, from Arturo Ui and Ubu Roi to Bush and Blair in Iraq?

Pinter was heavily instrumental in getting Death and the Maiden put on in London, where it opened twenty years ago in the tenth anniversary year of the LIFT biennial festival, starring Juliet Stevenson, Michael Byrne and Bill Paterson.

I'm always bemused these days by LIFT's programme of community events and dry-as-dust sounding conferences; it seems a very good example of a cultural institution out-living its original purpose; which is something you could certainly argue about most cultural institutions that go on for ever - the RSC, for example, or Bruce Forsyth.

Death and the Maiden, which won two Olivier awards, was just one component of a fantastic LIFT season that included a wonderful treatise on the metaphysics of performing, The Double Wedding, with Rose English, DV8, areialists, ice-skaters and Roddy Maude-Roxby; a first glimpse of the "new" South Africa after the release of Nelson Mandela from the Market Theatre in Johannesburg; and the Maly Theatre's astonishing Gaudeamus. a poetic ballet of lust and deprivation in a disbanded battalion of the Soviet Army.
I'm not convinced that an old-style LIFT is not needed any more. Admittedly the Barbican's BITE seasons do a great job of keeping tabs on the international theatre scene, but they tend to follow trends, not anticipate them, while the RSC (on the whole) and the National are far too bound up in our own repertoire to keep an eye on France and Germany, let alone Eastern Europe; the international programme at the Royal Court has withered a little of late, too, though all sorts of readings and exchanges go on behind the scenes.  

Are you, for instance, excited about hearing Shakespeare in Swahili in next year's World Shakespeare Festival? Up to a point, perhaps, though the thought of Julius Caesar in Italian already sounds crushingly familiar: what odds, I wonder, on old JC ending up strung up by his boot laces in the Senate, like Mussolini, or (yawn) Kevin Spacey in Richard III recently?

Lindsay Posner, who directed the first Death and the Maiden, is rapidly turning into the new Robert Chetwyn of the West End, working his way through modern classics by Arthur Miller, Simon Gray and now Michael Frayn (he's in charge of Noises Off at the Old Vic soon), while Jeremy Herrin, deputy director of the Royal Court where Posner once worked, takes on the Dorfman. 

With Edward Bond's Saved, John Osborne's Inadmissible Evidence and the Marat/Sade all opening within the same week, you could be forgiven for thinking we'd entered a 1960s time warp. The Bond and the Osborne obviously stand up very well indeed, but it saddens me to read dismissive reviews of the Marat/Sade which, in 1964 in Peter Brook's RSC production, was one of the truly great evenings in our modern theatre.

It's not so much that the critics don't like it that bothers me; it's their complete disregard for the historical significance of the Brook premiere, and why it is that the current version seems not to strike any similar chords. There must be a reason, and I can imagine a few, but I haven't seen Anthony Neilson's revival myself. The times are not a'changing any more. They've changed.  


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