THEATRE / Revolutionary with a royal crush: Hated Nightfall - Royal Court; HRH - Theatr Clwyd; The Cherry Orchard - Glasgow Citizens; Ghost from a Perfect Place - Hampstead; Butterfly Kiss - Almeida

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'YOU should have been a Romanov, darling,' declares the exasperated Duke of Windsor in Snoo Wilson's HRH, 'the Grand Duchess Wallisoffski]' A pity this idea did not also occur to Howard Barker during the composition of Hated Nightfall. Barker, as always, asserts his poetic rights over historical fact. But the Russian imperial household does not make much of a showing in this fanciful treatment of the Ekaterinburg massacre, and Wallis Simpson would have been a welcome addition to the dejected party. She at least would have gone down with all guns blazing.

The play's pretext was the discovery of two unidentifed corpses among the remains of the Romanovs. Barker casts them as a pair of Tsarist menials: Jane, a domestic servant, and Dancer, the family tutor. In a forest clearing, with a telephone to the Central Committee nailed to a birch tree, this couple has been left in charge of the imperial prisoners until the Party takes over. In the interim they hold history at bay, enjoying a brief sense of supremacy as though on the crest of a turning wave.

Several basic questions spring to mind. What is the past relationship between the two groups? As family outnumber jailers, why don't they bump them off? Such ploddingly literal matters are of no interest to Barker. What excites him is the interaction of rebellion and revolution, and the parallel operation of political and personal revenge. And as no one is there to speak for the Party, the result is a one-character play. Old Jane (a pugnaciously comic Jane Wood) is there to grouse and sweep up the mess. The Empress spends most of her time sleeping, while Romanov pere (Nicholas Jones) breaks out of his moody silence with lines such as: 'Our misery is incomprehensible to me' (meaning that the dramatist has been unable to imagine it). That leaves Dancer in unrivalled possession of the stage.

The name sums him up: as quick-witted as he is agile on his feet, and the only free agent among a company fettered by fixed roles. With no allegiances, he sees himself as the 'Doorman of the Century', driven by the single impulse to seize his moment before being swept into oblivion. And, having his own scores to settle with the Romanovs, he murders every interfering Party official who happens to drop in. As the bodies pile up, Barker's production acquires a lively farcical momentum, vigorously propelled by Ian McDiarmid's performance of the bourgeois individualist avenger, with its teasing switches between geniality, sadism, rage and sardonic authority.

It is a dream part. But the character, too, is a dream. 'I am without qualifications,' Dancer confesses, but 'I am blessed with this extraordinary facility for speech.' Just so. Strip off the ideological rhetoric, and all that remains is the puerile case of an underdog with a crush on royalty. Almost his first action is to peer up the Empress's skirt. And nothing he does afterwards has any meaning as it occupies a vacuum as dramatically lifeless as a masturbation fantasy.

The royal pair in HRH are also marooned in a vacuum, poor things. 'Hi,' David Yelland addresses the house in tones of strangulated affability: 'I'm David, Duke of Windsor, and my consort is the Duchess. You will bow when you speak to her.' If we don't, nobody else will. The date is 1943, and he is Governor General of the Bahamas - the lowliest posting the 'Firm' (aka the Windsors) was able to inflict. We observe the lovers writhing in this diplomatic Siberia, with endless leisure to decide whether the world was well lost, and no more hope of regaining it than the prisoners of Ekaterinburg. There are other piquant overlaps with Barker's play: as where both Wallis and the Tsarina reflect that they married a Prince who turned into a frog. But Wilson's vacuum is no dream. As evoked by Kenny Miller's chrome-and-glass arena stage, it is a DIY torture chamber where inmates torment each other into confession.

The material consists mainly of recrimination and fretful reminiscence, but it is cunningly organised. The initial impression of Maria Aitken's Wallis as an upstart bitch obsessed with status (and toying with the idea of pregnancy as a pretext for enlarging her wardrobe) is balanced by the gross humiliations of her first marriages. Likewise, the Duke's first appearance as a wounded innocent takes a knock when his navety expresses itself in currency smuggling and hopes of seeing Wallis reign over a Nazi England ('We're the only ones who stood by the Fuhrer'). In Giles Havergal's production the dialogue bites with the authentic discord of arrogant insecurity and supercilious modesty; and in these two superlative performances, you see Jamesean fiction hitting the fan of history.

The St Petersburg Maly Theatre's production of The Cherry Orchard (seen at the Lyric Hammersmith at the start of a six-week tour) is the sweetest version of the play I have ever seen. Any English performance that featured a Ranyevskaya (Tatiana Chestakova) who greets each calamity with an increasingly radiant smile, and which invited sympathy for the reptilian Yasha as a gauche youngster choking on his first cigar, would surely be denounced as an example of Western sentimentality.

Sentiment is not the word for Lev Dodin's actors, who project the characters' feelings into climaxes of undreamt-of passion. Reunited with her son's tutor, Ranyevskaya collapses as though she has only just heard of his death. When Semeonov (Nikolai Lavrov) thinks he has lost his money, he stops the whole party to look for it. The show at once overflows with torrential emotion, while presenting an immensely detailed and co-ordinated mise-en-scene: above all, in the Act III party, which consists of a continuous chain dance diversified with additional comic pantomime (such as the amazing 10ft apparition of Angelica Nevolina's Charlotta). The effect is as close to Verdi as to Chekhov. It is hard to know what Chekov's orchard stands for in post-Communist Russia: perhaps for such fragile treasures as the Maly Theatre itself.

You cannot imagine Phyllis Nagy or Philip Ridley's characters having much truck with the orchard, except maybe as somewhere to have sex or dispose of a corpse. The heroine of Nagy's Butterfly Kiss (Elizabeth Berridge) reflects on serial murders and on her nymphic and lesbian prowess while awaiting trial for blowing her mother's brains out. In Ridley's Ghost From Another Place, an ageing East End hoodlum (John Wood, cultivating a sepulchral boom) returns to his old manor and propositions his prostitute daughter who responds by torturing him with a lighted cigar. Both plays are overloaded with modish themes at the expense of forward drive. Nagy has a talent for wounding dialogue and her seduction scenes for Berridge and Debora Weston (as directed by Steven Pimlott) are very sexy indeed. Her use of simultaneous action and tricks with dramatic time gum up the works without achieving their intended contrapuntal effect. Ridley has a clear melodramatic tale to tell, but (judging from Matthew Lloyd's production) garbles it through incessant reliance on retrospective narrative. In neither play do you believe a word the characters are saying. Two duds, cast wildly beyond their deserts.

'Hated Nightfall': Royal Court, 071-730 1745. 'HRH': Theatr Clwyd, 0352 755114. 'The Cherry Orchard': Glasgow Citizens, 041-429 0022, from 29 Apr. 'Ghost from a Perfect Place': Hampstead, 071-722 9301. 'Butterfly Kiss': Almeida, 071-359 4404.

(Photograph omitted)