New Peter Shaffer play is profound but lacks punch

After such stage hits as ``Royal Hunt of the Sun,'' ``Equus,'' and ``Amadeus,'' few critics would deny the impact of Peter Shaffer's work. Indeed, this formidable British playwright has already made his mark on 20th-century drama, come what may. What remains an open question, however, is the overall value of his brand of theatricality. Unlike most dramatists today who probe many subjects over the course of a career, underpinning nearly all of Shaffer's major work is one obsession: religious belief. For him it's the ultimate paradox. On the one hand, he views worship of God as the greatest life-enhancing force; on the other, a dangerous opiate that destroys reason. Most Shaffer devotees highly praise what they deem to be his uncommon prowess at interweaving the speculative with the spectacular -- provocative ideas with spellbinding stories. But others, left cold by his spiritual wranglings, see his style as dazzling melodrama, and little else.

``Yonadab,'' which is Shaffer's first stage offering since ``Amadeus'' and currently premi`ering at London's National Theater, is yet another play in the same mold. This time, though, rather than the usual oblique references, Shaffer has taken his anguish -- what he calls ``the profound ache for belief among the mockers of belief'' -- and made it his central theme.

The story line is freely adapted from two sources: the Old Testament account of Amnon, son of David, and his rape of half-sister Tamar, and an intriguing English novel called ``The Rape of Tamar,'' by Dan Jacobson. Like Jacobson, Shaffer uses the minor biblical figure, Yonadab, cousin of Amnon, as the story's narrator. A wisecracking raconteur, Yonadab (Alan Bates) starts off by explaining he had the great misfortune of being born a closet skeptic during the reign of King David, a time of intense religious fervor when all David's court were busy bearing witness to the then new notion of a single God.

Except Yonadab. ``I did my regulation bowing,'' he quips from the edge of the stage as the action freezes. ``But inside, I was blank.''

It's through much more of this edge-of-the-stage and side-of-the-mouth commentary that the ``true story'' behind Tamar's rape unfolds. Yonadab, so it seems, urged Amnon to commit incest as part of a great Plan. The first step was to convince Amnon that his desire for his half-sister was a sign of potential divinity. Once united, the couple would then overthrow the existing order and create a new kind of Hebrew godhead -- with Yonadab pulling the strings.

Plans go awry, however. By the end of a densely packed plot laced with misbegotten lust and bloody mayhem, our manipulator is no nearer an answer to the soul-racking question that's dogged him.

Which is better: a life suffused with divine passion or dictated solely by detached reason? ``All over the earth I see [religious] creed and the riot it makes,'' he cries, ``and in me, no creed, and the rape that makes.''

Although consummately directed by Sir Peter Hall, and at times deeply thought-provoking, ``Yonadab'' lacks punch. Shaffer has brought together many techniques and ideas that have worked well for him in the past: the narrator outside the action feeding off the life of those within, the inexplicability of a God choosing greatly flawed people on whom to bestow His favors, the proverbial weaknesses of man, which sometimes lead to shallow forms of worship, to name but a few. That's fine. But he's failed to weave old strands into a markedly new fabric. Moreover, Alan Bates in the central role is competent but lacks the necessary versatility to slip easily between cynic and spiritually torn protagonist.

Still, by using the image of Tamar's rape to allegorically convey a life devoid of spiritual meaning -- with its easy self-deceptions, ill-directed passions, and great expense of effort that ends in nihilistic emptiness -- Shaffer has developed his obsession one significiant step further. He now puts forward the notion that skepticism is as destructive to the soul as is man-twisted belief.

``Yonadab'' isn't Shaffer's most compelling work. And many critics are disappointed -- not just the usual detractors, but devotees as well. The play nevertheless shouldn't be written off. Indeed, it has all the signs of being an important steppingstone to more inspired things.

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