There's a simple test I tend to apply when confronted with a play by a Western writer that is set in post-Communist eastern Europe. It's this: would I be able to sit through the piece without embarrassment in the company of my east European friends?
There are certainly rich thematic pickings for playwrights in this neck of the woods. David Edgar, for example, has twice sent his imagination eastwards - first in The Shape of the Table (1990), which eavesdropped on the behind-closed-doors deliberations that led to a velvet revolution in a country not unlike Czechoslovakia, and then in the supreme Pentecost (1994), which used the historic discovery of a Giotto-anticipating fresco in an abandoned church in some Balkan Hicksville as a brilliant vantage- point from which to look at the ironies, agonies and competing interests in post-Communist countries.
There is always the danger, however, even in the best of these works, of a kind of intellectual opportunism of seeing the post-Communist predicament primarily as a source of stimulating conceits, metaphors and ironic patternings and only secondarily as what it is for the people being written about - a matter of hard, lived experience, a daily challenge. I obstructively include, in this category, plays that have gone down well when performed before an east European audience. To see their world reflected on stage even in arguably insensitive ways is better than nothing for populations where the playwriting habit either atrophied during the old regimes or got locked into a now-superseded dissension mode. But this fact, too, can make you feel awkward.
With Love from Nicolae - a new play that opens tonight at the Bristol Old Vic and then goes on a tour of both Britain and (next year) Romania - is perhaps uniquely well qualified to pass my test with flying colours. The result of a partnership between Clear Day Productions, the Bristol Old Vic and the Teatrul Dramatic, in Constanza, Romania, it was designed from the outset to be as close and as equal a collaboration between the two cultures as possible. The author is the Irish dramatist Lin Coghlan, but what she has written is the outcome of a three-year process of workshops, discussions, readings, rehearsal and research in both countries, orchestrated by producer Clarie Middleton. The designer and the composer are Romanian; the director (Philip Osment) is British; the cast is mixed.
As regards the method of composition, the nearest comparison to Nicolae would be Mad Forest, Caryl Churchill's 1990 play about how the Romanian revolution was hijacked into a putsch under the people's noses. This jaggling post-modernist piece, a kinetic cat's-cradle of conflicting personal perspectives, was developed from two research trips to Romania with students from the Central School of Speech and Drama, who worked closely with their counterparts at the Carigale Institute.
The Churchill play was written as an amazingly fast, multi-angled, direct response to recent events, and the production itself was not cross-cultural. In the depths of its concentrated domestic and familial focus, With Love from Nicolae reflects the much more slowly ripening relationship between its creators. Coghlan, who along with Philip Osment has made a formal study of the language over this period, had no particular story in mind when she first went to Romania: it emerged gradually from the friendships she forged there.
Defection and its emotional consequences are central to the piece. Nicky, a disaffected 17-year-old Londoner, was christened Nicolae after the father he never knew - a young Romanian who, during the Ceausescu years, defected to the West, had a brief but intense love affair with Nicky's mother, then decided to make a heroic return to rescue his relations from the grievous penalties (loss of job, denial of passport etc) suffered by the families of defectors. This offical version of his career ends with his death on Romanian soil.
Set over an Easter weekend, the play is a sensitive, often humorous exploration of the discoveries made when Maggie, Nicky's 40-year-old Irish mother, who is in the throes of a midlife crisis, drags her deeply reluctant son on a trip to the Black Sea port of Constanza to search for Nicolae's family. Lucian Iancu, the big grizzly-bear-like artistic director of the Teatrul Dramatic, and his charming wife Viorica, who has acted as interpreter at rehearsals, are particularly well placed to vouch for the psychological accuracy with which Coghlan has depicted a defector's effects on a family. For, in the last month of the Ceausescu regime, Lucian landed himself in prison with a 20-year sentence when he and two co-conspirators were arrested after a miscarried attempt to hijack a ship to Istanbul and freedom.
To ask how a woman can forgive a man for abandoning her to a future of privation is to fail to understand the peculiar pressures of living under the Ceausescus. Lucian did not tell Viorica how or when he was going to defect but she knew that, because of the increasing anger at his political outspokenness, the day would come when he had no other choice. Not letting her into the details of his departure was, she insists, a way of protecting her.
In the shape, though, of Nicolae's middle-aged brother, Mihail, the non- defector who became the family dogsbody, the play shows how life for those who stayed behind can leave them trapped in a painful double-bind of blight. To his mother and sister, Mihail can never live up to the golden sibling who had the imaginative daring to escape and so became a paradoxical symbol of hope, even if he did shrivel Mihail's prospects in the process.
The danger of remaining in thrall to a memory that might be falsely based is explored with both the British and the Romanian characters. In the course of developing the play, Coghlan made friends with a woman who had waited 25 years for her defector husband to keep his reiterated promise that he would come back to rescue her. After the revolution, with nothing to stop him now, he wrote to say that he had remarried and started another family. "At that moment," the woman told Coghlan, "all my hope was gone and my life could begin again."
"It's that kind of contradiction," adds the playwright, "that is at the heart of the piece. When is it an act of courage to leave and when is it an act of cowardice?"
That this woman would treat a foreign dramatist with such an intimacy is evidence of the slowly building trust that has been the basis for the creation of this piece. One of the briefs Coghlan was given was that the play should be accessible to young audiences in both countries. Accordingly, workshops were held in the George Calinescu High School in Constanza and Clevedon School in Bristol. In one exercise, the pupils had to act out an imaginary school reunion 10 years on. It emerged that Romania's young people have considerably more hope in the future of their country and in their own role in its improvement than do their British counterparts, a contrast reflected in the play in the relationship between Nicky and his new-found female cousin, Gabi.
Talking to the George Calinescu pupils was the most heartening feature of a brief trip I made to Romania to meet the people involved in this project. They may watch MTV and wear fake lookalike designer gear imported on the black market from Istanbul, but these articulate teenagers, with their formidably good English, are unfooled by it all and indeed recently won first prize in a national drama contest with a satire on the values of American soaps.
The mood in the country has been upbeat since the victory of the reformists in last November's elections. Older conceptions of reliability still prevail in certain quarters, though, as was evident from one subtly farcical cock- up. A grand lakeside dinner had been arranged for the big wigs of Romanian theatre and of the British Council, which has given support to the project. The waiters laid the al fresco tables and, under a mild drizzle, the guests hobnobbed and drank. It was only somewhat later, when someone noticed that the waiters had taken to killing time by helping themselves to the vino, that it began to dawn on people that there was no food in this pre-booked restaurant, not even bread. A situation worthy of Bunuel was saved by a mass migration in taxis to dinner at a hotel.
Somehow, it wasn't in the least embarrassing and neither, unlike a lot of drama about eastern Europe, is With Love from Nicolae. For once, the balance of power feels right. It's a compliment to all concerned that Viorica Iancu can say, "It's as though I've written this play myself"
Bristol Old Vic (0117-987 7877) to 20 Sept, then touring to Civic, Darlington 2-4 Oct (01325 486555); Wilde Theatre, Bracknell 7-8 Oct (01344 484123); Victoria, Halifax 13-15 Oct (01422 351158); Royal Court, Liverpool 16-18 Oct (0151-709 4321)
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