This is the first production in the main part of the newly converted Lyttelton Theatre. It promises much for the Transformation season as the collaboration between novelist Jeanette Winterson and director Deborah Warner is very special.
The staging is reminiscent of Warner's recent Turn of the Screw at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, which, like The PowerBook was designed by Tom Pye. There is a large often dark stage area populated by no more than three people and the odd extra. Somehow, using Jean Kalman's lighting and a combination of movement by the actors and a large video screen , the stage always seems fully populated.
In part, this is due to a mesmerising performance by the always magnificent Fiona Shaw. She attracts the eye whenever she is on stage and her elastic facial expressions catch a very wide range of emotions. In particular, she is the mistress of discomfort. She is also very brave as her initial entrance involves descending a ladder from approximately 50 ft above the stage.
There is far more to this play than Fiona Shaw's acting. This is one of Winterson's more accessible works but retains the poetry that makes her writing special. It is a tale of cyber-love involving an older uncertain woman, played by Shaw and a bolder, brassier younger one, Saffron Burrows, who is constantly leading her on.
The Irish-accented Shaw sets the theme for the play regularly repeating the phrase "freedom for just one night". However, in reality, she is far more interested in finding the one great love of her life while her lover played very coolly but surely by Miss Burrows is after the one night stand.
Taking a structure like If on a Winter's Night a Traveller by that master of magic realism and story-telling, Italo Calvino, the play takes an interesting episodic form. The older woman is a writer and her dialogue with her Internet lover is interspersed with very beautiful tales the first two of which are set in Renaissance Italy and modern-day Paris. These are followed by a number of other tales looking at love from many angles and in almost every possible way. These are taken from sources as wide as Dante and Mallory (the mountaineer).
Each of the tales is about the power of love and sex and Winterson seems unable to write without providing poetic language and powerful sexual metaphors in almost every sentence.
Accompanying the very artistic visual experience, there is a continuous soundscape generally of relatively minimalist, trance-based music with occasional lurches of despair that mirror Shaw's discomfort. This enhances the beauty of Warner's vision and Winterson's poetry and underlying feeling; the whole always lightened by the writer's wicked sense of humour.
The play is effectively a two-hander and as it develops, the seat of power begins to move from the younger woman. Her initial, devil-may-care nonchalance gives way to something deeper while at the same time Miss Shaw's character gains in confidence. In a very moving denouement, the inevitable crossroads is reached.
This fusion of language, tableau-like visions and sound adds up to a very special theatrical experience that must rate as one of the best plays of the year.
This review originally appeared on Theatreworld in a slightly different version.
The PowerBook plays at the Lyttelton until 4th June.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher