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Will the real me show yourself please?

Brian Hayward reviews two plays that put people on trial

Topic of the month for young people's theatre is obviously the problem of identity. Both TAG Theatre Company and Visible Fictions are now touring theatres with plays that pose questions of "Who exactly are you talking to?" and "Who am I?"

Visible Fictions has set the teenage, existentialist angst of Monster (touring until October ll) in Glasgow. The theme comes from the novel by American writer Walter Dean Myers, whose central character is a black 16-year-old being held for trial for a murder committed by one of a gang of robbers as he stood look-out.

The book's success sprang from the author's ingenious device of writing it in two styles, that of a film script the boy is making of his crime and trial, and that of a personal diary he keeps (as Wilde would say, only the intimate thoughts of a young man and therefore intended for publication).

That so much of the novel is written as film script is temptation enough for Visible Fictions to put a blend of theatre and film on the stage, and this seems to me to be both the production's strength and weakness.

The ambitious staging needed was two years in the making, long enough to assemble the hugely impressive technology and dramatic layering of the presentation. Although there are only three actors on stage, there are another 20 on voice-over and film, projected on to the metallic back wall, raised panels of the metallic ramp stage or even tea trays. The actors on stage are filmed live and simultaneously projected, distractingly, in close-up on the rear wall.

While you marvel at the technical wizardry, you are reminded too that cinema is an inferior, two-dimensional version of live theatre and that an interaction of a real actor and a film clip is a miracle of synchronisation, not communication.

It does not help that the play's story has already happened - removing most of the narrative interest of the play - or that the court case is not the most exciting trial scene you will ever see.

Instead, the focus is, as it should be, on the tortured search for identity by the look-out, Steve Marmon, played with unremitting remorse by Clayton Wilson.

No doubt school audiences will readily identify with the self-doubt of this misunderstood teenager as he tries to steady his footing after his sudden and unexpected fall into the adult world, as much as they will be wowed by the technical ingenuity on view and the skill with which the actors and operators manipulate it.

For TAG, the question of identity is asked by the doomed Stanley in its version of The Birthday Party (touring until October 31).

In guest director Guy Hollands' scrupulous production (as the company waits for its new leader to join in December), Harold Pinter's classic loses none of its magnetic appeal, even though the 45 years since the play was written have brought changes.

Obviously the Tourist Board nowadays is more demanding of guest houses and the vulnerable, eager-to-please Meg (Katherine Stark) has had to preserve her boast of being "on the list" by redecorating her dingy room in gaudy wallpaper. Also, over the years a harder edge has come to the kind of "organisation" the Irish hard man McCann (Bryan Larkin) hisses Stanley has betrayed.

Otherwise, the comedy of menace lives on. The young man's waking dream of doting mothers, absent fathers and sexed-up girls-next-door is once again shattered by the nightmare inquisitor Goldberg, in an overwhelming performance by Stewart Porter. Pinter offers little hope for us in the face of this absurdist attack on human self-delusion and so the audience is grateful for a more than usually compassionate and understanding Petey from Alec Heggie, here making the most of what can be said in our defence.

For schools hoping to build the theatre experience into Higher drama course work, education officer Emily Ballard has devised workshops guided towards units 2 (text and theatrical context) and 3 (contemporary Scottish theatre). Each is a two-hour, practical interaction with a TAG drama specialist: unit 2 takes place in school, unit 3 is a post-performance experience in the theatre.

For less specialised interests, TAG revives its popular lecture demonstrations, when the artistic team and members of the cast meet schools in the theatre during the day to share the process of taking the play from page to stage.

The company also offers workshops for teachers of English and drama, also held in the theatres, where stage professionals will refresh techniques of teaching text analysis and conducting rehearsals, with special reference to The Birthday Party.

'Monster' at Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Oct 8-11, tel 0131 228 1404 Visible Fictions, tel 0141 887 2986 Theatre, tel 0141 552 4949, gives details of support work and class resources

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