When cultures collide

THEATRE With Love from Nicolae Bristol Old Vic
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The Independent Culture
With Love from Nicolae - which brings together an Irish playwright and British and Romanian performers - is a play that attempts to cram an awful lot into a very small space. Scattered in the vertices of a family drama, a tale of the prodigal son who left and the bitterness of the good and obedient son who stayed behind, and a history of a woman and her child abandoned by her man, there lie stories of life in Ceausescu's Romania, the hope that the 1989 revolution has engendered, and the eternal problems of communication between a single mother and her son.

Maggie, an Irishwoman, takes her son Nicky - a bolshie London teenager trapped in the saltflats of adolescent inarticulacy - to Romania to visit the scenes of his absent father's childhood. In the Black Sea port of Constanza they meet the family of Nicolae, her former lover, and their initial warmth and hospitality opens the door to traumatic truths about the past.

At its finest points, the play explores the contrasts between the two cultures that meet through Nicolae's absence: the Irish, with its fascination for roots and the personal history that made each of us, and the Romanian, blanking the unpleasant past and focusing fixedly on the brighter future that has so recently opened up. Watching a procession of candles, Maggie asks "Are they for the dead, for souls?" "No," replies Mihail, "they are for hope, for a good year to come."

In a story that the writer claims is based on the similarities between the two cultures, it is this total contrast which stands out most strongly. Of course, neither of these attitudes is healthy, and it is the intermingling of the cultures that brings some form of release and acceptance: Maggie, whose life has been totally dominated by one Nicolae, has to come to a country that has finally shaken off the dictatorship of another to learn how to move on.

With a clear visual echo, the set is a Dali nightmare of twisted organic abstracts, which hover over the action like the dried-out corpses of the past haunting the present. Having opened so many rich cultural and philosophical seams, one wonders whether it is necessary to devote a large chunk of the second half to the more conventional subject matter of the single mother's perennial dilemma in prioritising between her new man and her child. Nevertheless, the play holds the attention, and is exciting in its unashamed use of some unusual theatrical techniques and a bilingual script which, while creating utter authenticity, never leaves an English audience fidgeting or confused.

With Love from Nicolae offers British audiences an opportunity to see some fine acting talent which, until very recently, was locked firmly away from Western eyes. Yet its most remarkable and promising feature lies in its collaborative nature, the linking of hands from the Irish Sea to the Black Sea. One can only hope that it is the first of many works that trample down the rusting remains of the Iron Curtain.

To 20 Sept. Booking: 0117-987 7877