THEATRE / Love among the ruins: Caroline Donald talks about theatre under Ceaucescu with Romanian director Alexandru Darie

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The Independent Culture
'The first time I went abroad was a very sad experience,' says the director Alexandru Darie. Far from the usual story of being fleeced in the coach station, Darie's first impressions of Austria were something that few people in Britain can share. On his way to collect the grand prix from the 1981 International Theatre Schools Festival in Italy, for a short play called The Verger, he and the play's two actors arrived in Vienna, by train from Romania.

'All three of us just burst into tears,' he recalls. 'There was a free atmosphere that we had never encountered before - clean white tables in the street with coloured parasols and people having a good time. It was completely different to the terror we had been used to, but you don't realise this until you go some place else.'

Since then, Darie has had many opportunities to compare his mother country with freer societies, travelling extensively on scholarships and with his productions. After he visited Britain in 1990, courtesy of the British Council, his exuberent Romanian language production of A Midsummer Night's Dream was staged (with great success) at last year's London International Festival of Theatre. The British Council trip also paid off in that he met John Retallack, Artistic Director of the Oxford Stage Company, who asked him to direct an English language production of Much Ado About Nothing, currently on tour and opening in Oxford tomorrow.

Having learnt English at school for 12 years, Darie speaks it fluently, with an impressive use of idiom, pronouncing words like 'you' in a charming Loyd Grossman-like drawl - 'yeuuuw'. In his left ear he sports three little silver hooped earrings and he follows East European form by drinking ridiculously strong coffee and smoking continuously (though he politely checks if this would be all right).

Darie is married to the theatre designer Maria Miu, with whom he works on most of his productions, including Much Ado. This is not always an easy collaboration: 'The reason we work together is because we are very critical about each other. It is a very tough process sometimes but you develop a team spirit. When we talk, we know exactly what the other means and we don't have to recreate the creative process every time.' The family team includes their two-year-old son who has come to Britain with them and has just broken the heart of one of the actors' four-year-old daughter.

After a short return to Bucharest, where Darie is Resident Director of the Comedy Theatre, the family's next stop is Freiburg in Germany. Darie will be directing in German and is unperturbed that he can't speak it as well as he can English (he's presently taking German lessons). Indeed, he thinks that directing in a language other than your own has its advantages: 'If the people you are working with are co-operative, it's interesting. Sometimes I would ask the actors here questions they would never ask themselves. I would say 'What is the meaning of this word?' 'Oh, it means that . . .' 'No, what does it mean exactly?' and they would discover they didn't know the meaning themselves.'

The nuances of different languages may present the occasional problem for Darie, but his biggest difficulty when casting Much Ado was to find British actors who were 'really physical, meaning they don't lose their focus and you can understand what they're saying, even when they're doing something'. In his production, the actors are required to throw themselves around the stage in fights, dances and processions taken from a bewildering variety of cultures, speaking as they do this. He admires the British reverence for the text of a play though, and the ability of most actors to sing, dance and play a musical instrument - all-round skills lacking in most Romanian actors, due to the fact that musicals are a very minor genre there. 'People go to Shakespeare, classical and modern plays - they are very hungry for plays that have not been allowed before because they were forbidden or because you had to pay hard currency for the royalties. The real theatre-goers like the serious stuff.'

It may also be the sorry condition of most Romanian theatres that make musicals difficult to stage. 'They were very well subsidised until 1978 and then everything was cut until Ceaucescu died,' says Darie. 'Theatres were very humiliated; some of them had to do completely different things in order to survive - from renting costumes to building coffins in their workshops in order to make money for their productions. It was also very cold inside the theatres and water would freeze in the glasses, even under the projector lamps. People would wear hats and gloves inside.' Not an environment conducive to prancing about in a flimsy tulle number and tap shoes.

Despite the pressures imposed by the Ceaucescu regime, Darie says that 'the audiences were very supportive'. Wrapped up against the cold, they would go to the theatre as a gesture of defiance against a leader who tried to make culture, especially Western culture, a scapegoat for the country's numerous troubles. Now that Ceaucescu has gone, the theatre has new problems - the least of them being the universal one of Not Enough Money - due to a government that cannot get its act together about anything, let alone theatre subsidies.

But it is not just lack of governmental interest that Romanian theatre must now fight. As the country opens up, so interest grows in all things new, shiny and Western. Even before Ceaucescu fell, there was a huge underground video network in the country; 'one of the vastest in the world,' asserts Darie. 'If you go into a house, people might not have a bed but they will have a video recorder. It was luck really that when the first videos came on the market in the West, Ceaucescu didn't realise they were going to go so cheap, so he didn't make a law forbidding their access to the country. When he did want to, it was too late.' Videos, films, foreign travel and private enterprise all now compete against theatre tickets for the little money ordinary Romanians have.

For Darie, memories of life under Ceaucescu have taken on a 'surreal' quality. 'There are things I have been through that are just wiped out somehow,' he says. But he has put his background to good use in his production of Much Ado, tweaking Shakespeare's text to emphasise that it is set in a world continuously at war. 'Especially living in Eastern Europe, I was filled with the idea that this play is about people in a collapsed Babel tower - they speak different languages and come from different places, that is why their pursuit of happiness and the solutions to inner conflicts becomes more powerful and interesting than just having it as an English garden comedy, speaking only about Elizabethan people and that age.'

Darie has gone to town on the cultural hotch-potch idea, using a multi-racial cast, and inserting references not only to Balkan, Romanian and diverse British traditions, but to African and Far Eastern ceremonies, costumes and songs too, making it all the world on one stage.

'I am trying to ask: 'Are we going to continue killing ourselves or is happiness and well-being more important than fighting?' ' says Darie. 'It sounds like Sixties stuff but I think the premonition of war with which the production ends is chilling because we are so close to the edge.' As Romania borders war-torn Yugoslavia, he has a point.

Opens tomorrow night at the Oxford Playhouse. See below for details.

(Photograph omitted)

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