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Not a pretty sight

With his dark, intensely imaginative stagings of `Three Sisters' and `Titus Andronicus', Romanian director Silviu Purcarete continues to amaze Paul Taylor
Who is Silviu? What is he, that Europe's swains commend him? The answer to those questions is a good deal clearer now than it was when Romanian director Silviu Purcarete first hit Britain at the Edinburgh Festival in 1991 with a high-energy, blackly pantomimic intercutting of Ubu Rex with scenes from Macbeth. Two plays about bloody tyrants, wildly different in style, were shown to be absurd photographic negatives of each other and the fact that the production opened just as we were getting news of the August coup against Gorbachev gave a horrid frisson of topicality to the show's final image. Upright in their satin-lined coffins, the Ceausescu- like Ubus fix the audience with a fatuous, knowing smirk, as if to say "Don't worry, we'll be back."

Since then, Britain has had several opportunities to get better acquainted with Purcarete's directorial imagination. Distinguished by their peculiarly hypnotic fusion of sound and spectacle, his productions tend to have the seamless intensity and archetypal quality of a dream, with images of poetic beauty and surreal barminess passing in a weird, lateral drift across the scene. Brought to the last LIFT, his unforgettable Phaedra staged that tragedy as an unending mythic conflict between the principles of militant chastity and dangerous, but life-affirming love. An out-of-time atmosphere also suffused his music-haunted 1995 Tempest, his only work with English actors to date. Meanwhile, the pictorial plasticity and epic scale of his vision could be seen last November when the vast Birmingham Arena was filled with a whirling, punctiliously drilled 100-strong chorus for Les Danaides, Purcarete's reconstruction of Aeschylus's Danaid trilogy.

Now the National Theatre of Craiova has brought his staging of Titus Andronicus for a tour of Britain, while over in Limoges, where last year the 47-year- old Purcarete became artistic director of the Centre Dramatique National, his new production of Chekhov's Three Sisters has just opened. When I met the gentle grizzly bear of a man at his new home-base, this conjunction of ventures moved him to some wry observations on the way French theatrical culture is at the opposite extreme from the Romanian. In Limoges, eight weeks of rehearsal on Three Sisters is followed by just 13 performances. In Romania, this Titus has been in Craiova's repertoire since 1992, the actors only replaced as they die, and Purcarete was facing the prospect of coming over to England with just three hours available before the first night for tweaking a production he hadn't seen in two years.

You can't tell there have been any such restrictions as you are swept up into this overwhelming vision of a barbarically decadent Rome. The play's spaces are defined by vast sheet-like curtains that flush with blood-red light; hospital trolleys propel characters over the stage. The feel is of some violent mental ward crossed with Shakespeare's image of a "wilderness of tigers" whose hungry growls reverberate on the dense soundtrack. Microphones and mobile monitors showing the jabbering heads of competing demagogues link the scene to the insane tyrannies of our own day.

The production compellingly grasps the essential point that this play is not, as it was once thought, the theatrical equivalent of a stroll through an abattoir but a powerful study of what the experience of atrocity does to people. It's the tragedy of a veteran warrior who only learns to feel the primacy of family ties over blind obedience to the state when the state's callous ingratitude has already begun to turn his wits. Confronted with his raped and mutilated daughter, Stefan Iordache's searingly punchdrunk, brutalised Titus starts to rock the bed on which she cowers and to sing to her as though she were a baby in a pram. The pathetic desperation of the gesture escalates as he bangs the bed in a mad frenzy of grief-stricken impotence and farcically doesn't even notice she's been thrown off it.

That deliberate, risky and curiously modern borderline in the play between horror and bad-taste laughter is trodden here with finesse in a production that presents the queen's wicked sons as a pair of grinning, creepily pre-moral sumo wrestlers and that stages the climactic cannibalistic banquet to the incongruously civilised strains of a Mozart piano concerto.

Purcarete's bold, imaginatively unified production of Three Sisters also ends with a big shock, as through a curtain we are shown the spectacle of Natasha, the upstart sister-in-law who gradually evicts our sensitive trio, in labour with yet another child. "She's giving birth to the Soviet army," explains this East European director. Underlining Natasha as the harbinger of a new order is typical of a staging which, in seizing on the symbolic status of things and in throwing up images from the inner reveries of the sisters, is out to expand the drama's non-naturalistic elements. Fascinating to see how this goes down in England, where the preference is for subtext rather than symbols. `Titus Andronicus': ends tonight at the Lyric, Hammermith (0181-741 2311) then tours