The RSC New Work Festival, Swan Theatre and The Other Place, Stratford-upon-Avon

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The Independent Culture

This was billed as "the first annual celebration of new writing in Stratford". The puzzling thing, though, is how little there has been to celebrate. I missed Zinnie Harris's play Midwinter and admired the one-man show Tynan, which can hardly be described as new writing, since every word of it was taken from a diary composed in the 1970s.

But the festival had the distinction of mounting what is possibly the worst new play of the year in Joanna Laurens's Poor Beck - an opaque reworking of the Myrrha legend in Ovid, composed in painfully sincere, utterly talentless pseudo-poetry. It was performed with heroic conviction by ace RSC actors who deserve better.

In one day, it was possible to go on a culture-crawl from 2.30pm to 11.30pm, taking in a devised piece about Pontius Pilate, at The Other Place and directed by the RSC chief Michael Boyd, followed by Head/Case, a new piece by Ron Hutchinson at the Swan, and back to The Other Place for a late-night monologue, September 10 2001, written and delivered by Douglas (Generation X) Coupland. It all sounds stimulating, but the day was dogged by a sense of dissatisfaction. Head/Case was a spurious piece, using brain damage as a dodgy metaphor for dividedness in Northern Ireland, and as a way of asking what it means to feel Irish and English. Needless to say, non-sectarian Tracy, hit by a brick during sectarian fighting and vividly performed by Claire Cogan, was all uninhibited emotion and instinct, being Irish. Being English, Sarah Cattle's Julia had been cut off from feeling by a car accident.

To my ear, bogusness breathed through Coupland's monologue, too. A soft-voiced, suited figure, he exuded the kind of shyness that shrieks self-congratulation as he took the audience on a creepily weightless surfing of several Zeitgeists. When he described clothes from Gap as the "fabric equivalent of downloaded computer software - everywhere and nowhere", you felt that the same strictures could be made of Coupland's cutely knowing but curiously empty reflections.

The Pilate Workshop had most potential, fixing on a man once described by Tony Blair as "the archetypal politician, caught on the horns of a dilemma". In its second half, this show built into a powerful ritualistic depiction of Pilate's predicament, trapped between the gods of his own heritage and the God whose story he was now helping to fulfil. This was arrestingly communicated, with Clive Wood's troubled Pilate becoming, in a dream-like simultaneous way, a pioneer priest at a Christian communion service. But the focus flitted around irritatingly. The peripatetic first half that introduced you to Blair, an Iraqi soldier and various folk with conflicting views on Pilate's origins had the air of a sixth-form open day project.

The format of this festival is good and to be welcomed, but it needs higher-grade filling.