Living dolls

HE HAS conjured Oedipus in the guise of a euphoric Ray Charles and presented a gender bending King Lear with a Southern drawl. Next up and still a work in progress is Jesus's crucifixion, Bob Marley-style.

But this week, theatre director Lee Breuer is set to transform Henrik Ibsen's classic 19th-century bourgeois tragedy The Doll's House into a feminist comedy for the Edinburgh International Festival. Casting the male roles at less than four feet and Nora, the play's heroine, at "normal size", Breuer will ponder that age-old question: does size matter?

"After covering politics, race and class with the mind of a radical, I thought it was time to get down to the basics," says Breuer, the 70-year-old co-artistic director of American theatre group Mabou Mines.

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But Breuer's masterpiece is far from basic. The set of the play has been scaled down to create a dollhouse-like space in which the female actors have to kneel to interact with their diminutive male counterparts. An entire production in miniature, animated puppets are employed to mimic Ibsen's overly familiar play, re-imagining his ideas of societal repression and giving it a modern feminist spin.

"I wanted to create this world of metaphors, where power is false, because the men who wield it are so small," says Breuer. "One of the things I learned early in my career is to take every thing and every idea very literally, to stretch the metaphor if you can and let the images and the lines take the audience where you want them to go: it maximises the impact."

In a show-stopping performance by Maud Mitchell (Breuer's real-life partner), Nora moves and speaks like a manic puppet, a surreal baby voice amplified by the show's sound system and design.

Breuer has the look of someone 20 years his junior. His tanned skin and muscular frame is the result of regular yoga and a recent holiday in the sun with Mitchell, who is also Dollhouse's co-adaptor.

His recent 70th birthday celebrations have made him slightly mawkish, he confesses, a mood he is sure his trip to Scotland will banish: "Any anniversary or birthday makes me think about what I have not achieved at this point and what I still want to achieve.

"In everything I do I am trying to make a political statement without preaching politics from the stage," he says. "In Dollhouse the patriarchy is in reality three feet tall, but has a voice that will dominate six-foot women. Male power isn't dependent on physical size. At the same time I wanted to explore the metaphor from the woman's point of view. It is about negotiating power and relationships as much as is possible and seeing how far that idea can go."

From a young age, Breuer had a quiet obsession with the more surreal elements of life and literature. Flashes of the more absurd rudiments of Alice In Wonderland and The Wizard Of Oz are sprinkled throughout Dollhouse.

At home and at play, the director commands attention and, he admits, still craves it. A father of five, Breuer has been a fearless risk-taker since he co-founded Mabou Mines Theatre Company in 1970. Along with Richard Foreman and the Wooster Group (also appearing at this year's EIF), he is largely attributed with helping to shape today's American avant-garde theatre scene.

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Certainly, as he jumps manically from story to story, it is clear Breuer's is a life lived to the full. His reputation as a charming enfant terrible, prone to following his own trajectory whatever the cost, precedes him. Indeed one of the actors who worked on Lear with him has said of the experience: "Lee is not afraid to jump off a cliff. If you're willing to jump with him, it's the most extraordinary experience you may ever have working with a director. I wouldn't call him crazy. He's mercurial."

Dollhouse, Breuer says, will do on stage what he commands himself to do in life: always look at the bigger picture.

"The humans might as well be puppets in real life and I really wanted to capture that. There is such a sense of tragedy, almost like they are being played by society's strings, controlling their every move."

The potential humour of society's woes is not lost on Breuer and there's no small sense of mischief as he reveals the comic twists dormant in the piece, from an injection of Marx Brothers tomfoolery to the play's finale, re-imagined operatic style. "It was about finding as many ways as possible to make it truly great, something that people would be talking about and enjoying long after the event."

An instant hit since curtain up, Dollhouse is Mabou Mines' most travelled play. It arrives in Edinburgh from an extensive worldwide tour - including stops at Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia and Spain, where, Breuer is delighted to say, it gained the adoration of Oscar-winning director Pedro Almodvar.

"Pedro came up to me after the show and I was gob-smacked. He said he loved it. The reaction everywhere has been amazing, even when people have found flaws in it, the response has been amazing. In Australia, where they have all this 'dude' stuff, they totally got it. But in places like the American south and Israel, people just think, 'What are you trying to do? Are you trying to make fun of men?'

"We've met so many people who've told us 'this is the story of my life', others have been totally bemused by it; that's the joy of theatre."

As time is called on the interview, Breuer extends an invitation to go to see the view from the roof garden of the apartment he shares with Mitchell in New York's Brooklyn Heights. They go there to do yoga when time allows, and it was here they saw the Twin Towers fall on the morning of 9/11. He does, he admits, live an extraordinary life.

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Walking through the quiet residential streets towards his home, he talks non-stop and with verve about his forthcoming projects, which include a commission from Brisbane Festival to work with Chappa, his musician son from the second woman in his life, Polina Klimovitskaya, the inspiration for Breuer's free-flying ballet and 2005 hit Red Beads.

And then, of course, there is his newest work about JC, planned for next year, in which he intends to re-imagine the crucifixion with Bob Marley as the Christ figure.

The long walk to the top of his apartment block is worth it. The view is, as he promised, extraordinary.

"Sometimes I think I'm just too old for this shit," he says, "but then I look down at this or I look around at that and I see that really, this is just the beginning." v

Dollhouse, King's Theatre, until August 28, 7.30pm