Bucharest blues

Driven from Romania by `mafia psychology', the director Silviu Purcarete now brings Phaedra to Britain.

It's over five years now since Romania's December revolution, but it's noticeable that the director Silviu Purcarete - whose mesmeric production of Phaedra opens tonight as part of the London International Festival of Theatre (Lift) - still instinctively lowers his voice whenever he mentions the name "Ceaucescu". The bar in Brighton where we were having a drink looks an unlikely haunt for lurking Securitate spies, but reflexes are hard to get rid of. That old habits die hard is a fact which, to his dismay, Purcarete has discovered is also the case in Romanian theatre.

Last year he resigned his artistic directorship of the renowned Bulandra in Bucharest, whereupon he was promptly replaced by the Culture Ministry's Head of Theatre who had, we can safely assume, little hesitation in approving his own appointment. This neat ultra-nepotism illustrates the "absolutely typical mafia psychology" which drove Purcarete away. "The stagnant structure was a big advantage for theatre before the revolution. It was a little island and you could achieve certain things in its stability. But nothing changed, and now it's like a great, dead shell."

Edinburgh Festival-goers first felt the impact of Purcarete's imagination in 1991, when the National Theatre of Craiova brought across his blackly pantomimic Ubu Rex with Scenes from Macbeth. But in England, this 45-year- old world-class director is still an unknown quantity. That situation is about to change. As well as taking Phaedra on a short tour, he begins rehearsals in August for a Nottingham Playhouse / Theatr Clwyd co-production of The Tempest which will tour Europe. There is talk, too, of his fetching to Britain his massive 1996 project: a reconstruction of the Danaides, the Aeschylean tetralogy of which only The Suppliant Maidens survives.

You're heard of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers? Well, these plays could be renamed "Fifty Brides for Fifty Brothers", and, by the sound of it, Purcarete is not going to stint on the numbers. The plays recount the story of the 50 daughters of Danaus who venomously refuse to marry their first cousins, the 50 sons of King Aegyptus. When peace can be secured, only on condition that they surrender, the daughters plot with their father to murder the husbands on their wedding-night, a mission that all but one of them accomplish.

For this huge chorus, Purcarete has auditioned some 800 people, whittling these down to a modest 110 young graduate actors. They met in Craiova in the spring for an early workshop. There were "a lot of competition exercises" and a long session in which, in the intimate glow of 50 candles, they improvised the wedding night to a point at which all the candles were spent. Blackout: then 50 male "corpses" were revealed by stage light, the women having to demonstrate how they had achieved the killing. By framing the action of the tetralogy with a television talk-show in which the Gods dispute among themselves the facts of what happened and differing accounts are shown, Purcarete hopes to make a dramatic virtue of the fact that there is much scholarly dispute over the content of the lost plays.

There are, the director agrees, deep thematic links between this work- in-progress and the production you can now see at Lift. The war between the Artemis principle in man (represented by the militant chastity of 49 of the sisters) and the Aphrodite principle (represented by the 50th, Hypermnestra, who falls in love) is made stunningly graphic in the Phaedra, Purcarete's account conflated from Seneca and Euripides, of this heroine's destructive lust for her virginal step-son. Here, in a timeless, moonlit landscape, where events progress across the stage in a lateral dream-like drift, these two opposed gods police the action. High-stepping Artemis is prophylactically bandaged in white from head to foot: Aphrodite, her bush of hair obscuring her face, is a primitive predator.

What the production imparts is a matchless sense of the unending, mythic nature of this conflict. Impotent to strike a healthy balance between the two forces, both Lini Pintea-Homeag's amazing Callas-like Phaedra and Angel Rababoc's vain, priggish Hippolytus (a youth happier stripping down to a posing pouch in the company of his hunter chums than receiving the attentions of women) seem to be destroyed by some impersonal and awe-inspiring process which implacably ignores their supplications.

The masterly matching of image and sound in this piece is a hallmark of Purcarete's work as is the elision of tragedy and comedy, here achieved by the female Chorus, dressed as old men in hats, ludicrously dwarfed by their outsize walking-sticks. With the Nottingham / Clwyd Tempest, he will be tackling one of tragi-comedy's great summits, though not for the first time. Last year, he staged the piece in a crumbling baroque theatre in Oporto with 15 actors playing spirits but the Ariel an invisible projection of Prospero's own voice. In what sounds like a homage to Psycho, the Caliban treasured the skeleton of his dead mother Sycorax and paraded around in her dresses.

The island was seen very much as a theatre. In Nottingham, he reveals, it will be more of a musical conservatory. Two actors will be cast as Prospero whose magic will have suspended him in a Dorian Gray-like youth - thus setting up interesting tension with Orlando and Ferdinand until the moment he abjures his powers, when he will be suddenly transformed into an aged man. If this show is anything like as good as his Titus Andronicus then it will be essential viewing. The name Silviu Purcarete may still be a somewhat unfamiliar mouthful in this country, but that won't be the case, I suspect, for much longer.

n `Phaedra' at the Riverside Studios, London, W6 (Booking: 0171-836 3464) to 24 June

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