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Michael Coveney: Blood and guts with Bush and Beckett

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Stephen Boxer as Titus

Killing fields in designated war zones spill over into butchery on the streets these days, just as it does in Titus Andronicus, when the aftermath of a fictional war between the Romans and Goths becomes a bloody revenge cycle with tit-for-tat atrocities involving knives and meat cleavers.

At least, in Titus, the perpetrators of this carnage know whom they're doing it to, whereas the killing on the streets of Woolwich in South London last week was completely random; drummer Lee Rigby of the Royal Fusiliers had been identified merely as a soldier, and an off-duty one at that, wearing a "Help for Heroes" T-shirt.

Every review of Titus I've read has mentioned the Woolwich killing, and I found myself in Stratford-upon-Avon on Friday night marvelling guiltily at the variation of murderous torture the warring factions - families, in fact - inflict on each other. Mutilation, stabbings, throat-slitting, limb-lopping, nasty pies, you name it...

But the joy we take in Titus stems from the illicit pleasure in "pretend" violence. We want to be reassured that this sort of thing only happens in the theatre, which is why the Woolwich tragedy rather spoils things by proving, inconveniently, that truth is no stranger, but stronger, than fiction.

Still, the RSC actors have a high old time with the play, even when things go wrong in unexpected ways. On Friday night, John Hopkins as the vicious, narcissistic new emperor Saturninus was stuck below stage in his bubble bath when the stage mechanism in the Swan failed.

Enter one of those quizzical, unflappable stage managers in black uniform and ear-piece who unhelpfully remarked that, as we could see, they were having technical problems. Suddenly, the bath rose from beneath, Hopkins grinning from ear to ear and saying, "I know I'm supposed to be ineffectual, but really..."

Again, we were allowed to wriggle off the meat hook and remind ourselves we were in a theatre watching a play, not a documentary. It's not quite so easy at the Bush, where Ayad Akhtar's Pulitzer prize-winning Disgraced is the talk of the town in its awkward, bristling dinner party conversation about Muslim apostasy, Islamo-fascism, racism, roots and cultural colonialism.

Will we feel equally uneasy when David Mamet's Race opens tomorrow night at the Hampstead Theatre? It's a similar sort of play in its raising of painful questions, again involving lawyers, when they're nominated to defend a white client accused of raping a black woman.

The show bombed on Broadway three years ago and the current orthodoxy of a Mamet backlash is stoked in the new issue of Prospect magazine where an American associate professor of theatre opines that Mamet still lags behind the 21st century, interested only, she avers, in defending the indefensible and attacking the unattackable.

We shall see. Mamet is certainly still adept at putting the skids under liberal pieties, and you could read the associate prof's article as being a very good example of just that. And in Ayad Akhtar, the great dramatist may have found himself a new young cohort. Certainly the audience reaction at the Bush last night would suggest that that is the case. The reception had "hit play" written all over it.

Already there's talk of a West End transfer, but Nadia Fall's production may need a little more star power in the casting to guarantee the possibility of box office success; which is a harsh thing to say given the pitch perfect quality of the Bush cast.

Certainly, as Whatsonstage.com's editor Theo Bosanquet has remarked, the sightlines are not ideal at the Bush in its rather too splayed out traverse seating arrangement. The concentration of a small proscenium should work wonders.

And concentration is of the essence in Lisa Dwan's remarkable performance as the disembodied Mouth in Beckett's Not I, which played five packed out performances at the Royal Court last week, and which I saw for the third time on Saturday night.

Dwan broke her own world record in bringing home the ferocious old woman's gabble of a text in well under nine minutes, an astonishing technical feat. The original Mouth, Jessica Tandy, took 20 minutes, the definitive Billie Whitelaw version at the Royal Court 40 years ago came in at around 14, and Dwan has whittled this down from just over ten to just under nine, without dropping or swallowing a single syllable.

In the current cultural climate, audiences love sound-bite theatre, and no-one would expect their money back for so skinny a programme (though the play was originally presented with Whitelaw on this stage alongside Albert Finney doing Krapp's Last Tape, and I would have liked to see an imaginative triple bill, or mini-fest, at least), but Dwan was followed by a filmed interview with Whitelaw talking about her experience as Beckett's muse on the play, and then by an onstage three-way discussion - with questions from the audience - between Dwan, myself and the Court's literary manager Christopher Campbell.

Campbell said how many of the Court's young writers were newly fascinated by Beckett's writing, having presumably exhausted the perhaps more readily available examples of Harold Pinter and Caryl Churchill. But Beckett has always been a core writer at the Royal Court; it was on this same stage that I saw my first ever Waiting For Godot - directed by Anthony Page, director of Whitelaw's Not I and the Finney Krapp - featuring an unforgettable, unsurpassed (in my experience) double act of Nicol Williamson and Alfred Lynch, both long gone and sorely missed.