Sex, Scrabble and murder

Theatre - Sheridan Morley on Ibsen's late-life crisis, a woolly Stoppard and a powerful dose of inne

I cannot recall a better time in the West End for the plays of Henrik Ibsen. Already we have Natasha Richardson in The Lady From the Sea and Ralph Fiennes in Brand. Now we get Anthony Page's sharp revival of The Master Builder at the Albery Theatre.

Patrick Stewart's elegant Solness is first amused, then intrigued, then besotted with the young Hilda. His explosive and highly sexual performance goes a long way towards understanding that The Master Builder is really Ibsen's dramatisation of his late-life crisis, a complaint against being an old man in love with a young girl, a situation from which no good can come.

Solness's tragic wife, Aline, is played by Sue Johnston with real pathos and without a trace of melodrama. Public attention will no doubt focus on the title role's being played by Patrick Stewart, best known as Captain Jean-Luc Picard of Star Trek; and we will also surely be constantly reminded that this production's Aline is Barbara of The Royle Family.

All of which may well be good news for a currently sluggish West End box office, but makes nonsense of a simple fact, that both Stewart and Johnston have long and distinguished careers in serious theatre. If we persist in showing interest only in familiar names from the screen, we are going to reduce still further the ranks of those who wish to be stage actors.

That said, Anthony Page's triumph is to remind us that this play is not simply about the title character. Almost every character here is defined by what the master builder has done to them.

John Logan's new adaptation comes as something of a shock. Not only are there laughs, but the sexuality is incredibly powerful: the two girls (Katherine Manners as Kaia Fosli and Lisa Dillon as Hilda Wangel, both immensely impressive in their first major West End roles) clearly find Solness's ability to scamper up his own buildings little short of orgasmic. This wasn't Freud's favourite play for nothing: why does Ibsen have Solness continue building until 1892, the year he was writing, if not to show he knew the importance of psychosexuality?

Thirty years ago, when Tom Stoppard's Jumpers was first staged by the National Theatre (then at the Old Vic), it achieved one remarkable record: more copies of the published script were sold to members of the audience than any other play. Even now, it is not hard to see why. It is quite literally a play on words, a sort of dramatised Scrabble in which plot and characterisation take second place to a dazzling, loony, lunar display of verbal fireworks with which the dramatist and his leading character beat us into intellectual and verbal submission.

The play focuses on George Moore, a professor of moral philosophy who appears to owe his job to being the namesake of George Moore the philosopher. He is married to Dotty, a failed music-hall queen who is involved with Archie, the vice-chancellor of her husband's university. In David Leveaux's new production, these three central roles are played better than well by Simon Russell Beale (as the understandably confused, tortoise-murdering professor), Essie Davis and Jonathan Hyde.

But now, as in the original, the real difficulty with Jumpers starts from the interval. Although I have seen plays abandoned by their audiences before the end, and even one or two by their actors, what I have never seen anywhere but in Jumpers is a play abandoned by its author well before blackout. I have no idea how it should end; but it is alarming to discover that Stoppard apparently finds himself in the same predicament.

To the Royal Court for Fallout, Roy Williams's clever and frightening play about the problems of race and violence in our inner cities.

Lennie James leads an excellent cast as the black policeman who grew up in the neighbourhood. He returns to find out who murdered Kwame (a Stephen Lawrence or Damilola Taylor figure) and to discover how far he himself has come from his childhood.

Time and again, Williams asks whether we want to live in the kind of world where parents are afraid of their own children. Written in the dialect of the streets, the play holds up a mirror to society, a mirror that we can't ignore. Isn't that what good theatre is for?

The Master Builder is at the Albery Theatre, London WC2 (020 7369 1740) until 17 August

Jumpers is in rep at the Lyttelton, National Theatre, London SE1 (020 7452 3000) until 9 September

Fallout is at the Royal Court Theatre, London SW1 (020 7565 5000) until 19 July

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