Almost Nothing / At the Table Upstairs, Royal Court London

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The Independent Culture

There are so many lengthy, charged silences in this double-bill of new Brazilian plays that it makes the work of Harold Pinter sound like continuous babble. Introducing an English audience to the talents of Marcos Barbosa, the two short pieces, Almost Nothing and At the Table, powerfully communicate a world of cover-ups, hush money, shrugged-off guilt - all the more insidiously sinister for taking place in ordinary environments such as a snack bar and a living-room, as though dealings in this debased moral currency were the norm.

It was said that the sun never set on the British Empire. You could almost make the same claim for the activities of the Royal Court's excellent international department, under whose auspices Barbosa makes his debut here as the first up in a season that will include new plays from Cuba and Russia. The comparison would be a touch ironic, though, for there's nothing imperialistic about the department's work with emerging dramatists in countries that have yet to develop a new writing culture. Rather, the accent is on helping the writers to find their own voice through a creative dialogue with seasoned practitioners. The results have sometimes been startlingly impressive: one has only to think of the penetrating, tragic-farcical vision of post-Communist life unveiled in the drama of Vassily Sigarev and the Presnyakov brothers.

Barbosa is not in that league, but the plays, staged by Roxana Silbert, show more than promise. The link between them is the casual devastation of lives and the studied refusal to confront responsibility. In Almost Nothing, a young, comfortably off couple (Evan Stewart and Nina Sosanya) try to airbrush from the record the fact that the husband had shot dead a street boy who was allegedly about to mug them. The turning-points in the drama happen wordlessly in taut, cicada-filled silences: the boy's angry mother accepting a bribe for not informing the police; the couple consenting to her murder, as a precaution. Whatever you say, say nothing. And yet, although this pair treat the death of others as a minor inconvenience, you sense in the final scene that fear of exposure is turning into insomniac guilt.

Karl Johnson is excellent in the role of the private detective-fixer, disturbingly genial and reassuring in manner, as though he were discussing a pension-plan rather than the elimination of a human being. The same actor is on fine, creepy form, too, in At the Table, in which he plays Castro, the organiser of a boy's adventure camp that is rife with paedophile abuse. The character's real motives are so heavily signalled in the first scene (when he cajoles a frightened child into joining up) that it might well have blunted the impact of the terrible confirmation of our suspicions in scenes that jump forward 20 years and show us, say, a couple of adult survivors having a beer after the funeral of one of their group who had eventually committed suicide.

To 28 February (020-7565 5000)