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

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama

TV

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before