THEATRE / Victim of a Romanian obsession

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LAST month I spent some days with an old Romanian friend, Radu Penciulescu, in the French town of Lectoure where he teaches at the European Actors' Institute. When I first met him in the Seventies he had a double life as the teacher of such future stars as Andrei Serban and Alexa Visarion, and as director of the Bucharest Little Theatre where he excelled in the East European art of coaxing topical meanings out of classic texts. His King Lear - relating to the pre-Ceausescu amnesty of political prisoners - was the most thrilling work in that line I can remember.

Then he went into exile and lost the will to direct. Where emigre colleagues such as Ciulei and Pintilie continued their careers on foreign stages, Penciulescu - shuttling between master-classes in the United States, Sweden, and France - settled for the marginal life of a teacher of acting. Tackling 'unplayable scenes' such as the wooing of Lady Ann, showing a group of students how to approach a big lie through a series of small truthful steps - this became far more important to him than playing the artistic supremo and stunning the public with some new concept of Richard III.

Returning home, I find just such an amazing new concept in the Oxford Stage Company's touring production of Much Ado About Nothing directed by Penciulescu's young compatriot, Alexandru Darie, and designed by Maria Miu of none other than the Bucharest Little Theatre. The Romanian Shakespeare industry forges on, and London has seen other recent examples of it in the Caramitru Hamlet and Darie's own A Midsummer Night's Dream. Last year I claimed Romanian direction never enforces a production concept at the actor's expense. But after his Much Ado, I must withdraw that statement.

Opening with a battle scene and ending in fateful expectation of a battle to come, the comedy occupies a feverishly lit oasis between two areas of darkness. It is as though the characters are grabbing what pleasures they can before their world collapses again. There is plenty of comic business, but none that dispels the atmosphere of tension and hostility. Darie pounces on the title pun between 'nothing' and 'noting', as it gives him a pretext for turning eavesdroppers into spies. There is usually someone lurking in the shadow of Miu's timbered arcade; with ingenious variations such as unveiling the villainous Don John (Richard Santhiri) from under a frivolous parasol, or blindfolding Hero (Diane Parish) during the garden intrigue so that speaker and spy can meet face to face.

Darie successfully introduced this Romanian obsession into the Dream. But it cannot work in Much Ado because it is the spies who put things right. Without Dogberry's rustic Securitate, the plot against Hero would never have been uncovered: an awkward fact that the show acknowledges by cutting the Watch scenes (including the interrogation) and recruiting Femi Elufowoju's grotesquely padded Dogberry into Leonato's household as a snooping butler. There is, therefore, no distinction between the town and the estate; Leonato (Richard Evans) changes from a seigneurial Governor into a palsiedly skittering old silly, continually abasing himself to the swaggering military; and the central partnership between James Simmons's glowering Benedick and Marie Francis's truculent Irish Beatrice is a straight continuation of the opening war games. Besides its multi-racial casting, the show also overflows with Balkan, African and Eastern rituals and dance ceremony. Darie is a highly gifted director with nightmarish experiences to communicate; but, looking at this brutally manipulative show, I began to understand how Penciulescu could sicken of the whole business and get out.

Prunella Scales, last seen shouldering the white woman's burden in Some Singing Blood at the Royal Court, returns as another post-colonial matriarch in Alan Franks's The Mother Tongue. There's a double meaning in that. First, it means the effortless power of this upper- middle-class queen bee to drive her south London daughter into ecstasies of frustrated rage within minutes of setting foot in the house. The opening grinning hostilities between Scales and Gwen Taylor (as daughter Harriet) are stylish, true, funny, and lead you to expect a straight mother- daughter duel. Franks, alas, denies us that by developing the title's second meaning - as the Babel of unrelated idioms that all go under the name of English: the street-cred speech of Harriet's drop-out son; feminist support group jargon; and small-print officialese when it transpires that mother dear has burnt her house down without insurance cover. This is a more ambitious scheme; but in view of the precarious hand-to-mouth plotting, lifeless caricatures, and dialogue that sounds as if cribbed from a phrase book, I would have preferred the simple parental comedy which Franks has it in him to write.

In Seven Doors Botho Strauss at least gives you fair warning of what to expect. There are the doors and out of them step seven sets of characters with their own tale to tell: a frantic tenant in search of his landlord; a car-park attendant hiring a bodyguard; a big-shot suicide disappointed by the humdrum Void who is to be his companion in the hereafter. Wandering through these ironically ludic sketches is the hangdog figure of one Herr Tietze, who has been cruelly rejected by his wife after coming second in a TV quiz show. You could say these situations reflect the spiritual poverty of German affluence; and thus sound sillier than Strauss's clowns. Strauss is often described as 'non-linear', another way of saying he can't tell a story. But his dialogue (in Anthony Meech's translation) is nervously brilliant; so are David Farr's cast (particularly Boyd Clack and Barry Wallman). See the piece as a revue, and you will have a good time.

Transferred from the Etcetera Theatre, Chay Yew's Porcelain concerns a young Chinese who murders his male lover in a public lavatory. For all its sexual realism, the play's main impact is one of grief and loss. In Glen Goei's production five seated actors move in and out of character, and between present and flashback. It is a form that enables you to contemplate the material without being overwhelmed. The performances are superlative. Look out for Adam Matalon's transition from cocky rent boy to grieving father.

'Much Ado About Nothing', Oxford Playhouse (0865 798600); 'The Mother Tongue', Greenwich (081-858 7755); 'Seven Doors', Gate (071-229 0706); 'Porcelain', Royal Court Theatre Upstairs (071- 730 1745).