THEATRE / Just don't bump into the actors: Theatre de Complicite make it up as they go along, all the way to an Olivier Award. Robert Butler follows them

FOR A start, there is no script. I saw a list of ideas on a rehearsal room table, but no one else looked at it. The assistant director did offer the actors cream-coloured cards with neatly typed quotes but only on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. Sort of, see what you think, let me know.

If there is a good moment to say something in a scene - that is, use actual dialogue - the director, Simon McBurney, padding round in T-shirt and bare feet, feeds the line. 'Try the one, 'I'm away on business . . .' ' And the actor tries it. This is Rehearsal Room One at the National Theatre. Three weeks before the opening of a new show.

It's a long way from actors only having to learn the lines and not bump into the furniture. Half the time these actors are the furniture. I watched a sequence where the father (Matthew Scurfield) and the son (Cesar Sarachu) left a stultifyingly boring family meal and went up to the attic. Scurfield, with a face like an Old Testament prophet, edged round the table and then over it. Sarachu, a skinny young Spaniard with doleful brown eyes, followed his dad. The rest of the family placed chairs on the table or raised them in the air.

'That's good,' said McBurney, who guides the improvisation with a mixture of comment and instruction. 'I like the chairs in the air up there.' Scurfield and Sarachu negotiated the chairs a second time. 'He's coming towards the attic,' said McBurney. Of course, Scurfield wasn't: he was still standing on a chair. 'They come in through the door.' Scurfield and Sarachu stepped from the chairs to the table. 'Everyone has to find a position.'

The rest of the company, having shed their roles as members of the family to become banisters on the way to the attic, were now jerking their heads forwards, sideways and back. They froze for seconds, keeping each movement distinct, then flapped their arms.

'Not too far away,' said McBurney, putting a cassette in the tape deck. Scurfield walked round the attic, pointing out the clucking birds to his son. The sound-effect of birds' wings built to a climax. 'As they flap their arms,' shouted McBurney to Scurfield and Sarachu, 'disappear behind the table]' Plates and cutlery reappeared and the rest of the company changed back from clucking and flapping to scraping soup bowls.

'Suddenly appear, father and son] Very fast]' said McBurney. Scurfield and Sarachu shot up from behind the table and rejoined the deathly family meal. 'And the plates are going clink-clonk-clink-clonk,' said McBurney. 'There's a rhythm.' During the clink-clonkclink-clonk, Scurfield sent a servant to fetch a book. 'Use the book as a bird,' suggested McBurney. The servant opened the book to let the pages flap, but the spine wouldn't bend back far enough and the pages were stiff. 'That's a shit book]' said McBurney, quickly placing another in the servant's hands. This time the pages flapped back and forth beautifully. 'Keep going]' said McBurney. This sequence ran for an hour without interruption.

Next week the finished picture from these sketches previews at the Cottesloe. The Street of Crocodiles marks the return of Theatre de Complicite to the National after last year's award-winning production of Durrenmatt's The Visit. That was the first time they had taken a full-length play as their text. This time they're using stories by Polish writer Bruno Schulz.

An art teacher at a boys' secondary school, Schulz was murdered exactly 50 years ago by a Gestapo agent. Two volumes of short stories survive, along with a translation of Kafka's The Trial and a book of erotic drawings. Schulz set his stories around a largely autobiographical family of characters in his home town of Drohobycz, in south-east Poland. He invests these drab provincial lives with a weird, dream-like charge. In the preface to the second collection of stories, Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass, John Updike describes Schulz as 'one of the great transmogrifiers of the world into words'. This makes his stories rich source material for a company that specialises in turning actors into banisters.

Founded in 1983 by four graduates from Cambridge and Jacques Lecoq's mime school in Paris, Theatre de Complicite chose a French name because they thought their first job was going to be in France. They chose Complicite following a remark by one of their teachers, Philippe Gaulier. He said that, as a member of the audience, he wanted to feel that the actors knew everything about each other. In the early days, when they were touring 45 weeks a year (and often abroad, where they could command higher fees), getting to know each other was not a problem.

Today, with an annual turnover of pounds 500,000 (they recoup 67 per cent at the box office), the company has grown in size while remaining true to its origins. More than half trained with Lecoq. Others, including the producer Catherine Reiser, trained with Gaulier and fellow teacher Monika Pagneux. The result is an international company (Spain, Switzerland, Italy and Britain) who speak the same theatrical language. One actor, Stefan Metz, a nursery school teacher in Switzerland, turned up to a workshop at West Ham town hall, and joined the company for Anything for a Quiet Life; something he may just have found after teaching under-fives. Ironically, Kathryn Hunter, who won the Laurence Olivier award for best actress for her performance in The Visit, trained at Rada.

To achieve the effects that win spontaneous applause - as the passengers did in The Visit, reeling in the wake of an express train - demands discipline. Actor Clive Mendus says the group aims to move with the speed and fluidity of 'a shoal of fish'. The rule is, whoever is at the front gives the signals, that is, until the shoal turns direction and a new person finds themself at the front and in charge.

This co-operation extends to rehearsals. The decision whether to take an early lunch becomes a group discussion. A member of the company wants to make an announcement, so everyone gathers round; it's an invitation to lunch on Sunday. When three of the founders - McBurney, Annabel Arden and Marcello Magni - leave rehearsals to attend a board meeting, the rest of the company carries on rehearsing. (The board, incidentally, includes the television film-maker Roger Graef and the actress Emma Thompson, a regular absentee.) This free-flowing, make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach has run into solid concrete walls at the National, where administrators like to know what's happening in advance.

Last year the National gave Complicite five weeks at the Studio to develop the Schulz idea. Richard Eyre invited them back when he saw the results. But the open-ended atmosphere hardens as the pre-production schedule moves into place, and requests go out for a model of the set.

At the National's 'green-light' meeting, where creative teams explain to all the different departments exactly what is going to happen, Complicite, says Catherine Reiser, did 'a bit of acting'. Their refusal to commit themselves in advance of rehearsals means that Rae Smith's designs will be, to put it bluntly, minimalist. A striking feature of The Street of Crocodiles will be the bare brick walls at the back of the Cottesloe.

'The Street of Crocodiles' previews from Thursday, opens 13 August (071-928 2252).

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