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Laugh at the right time

Timothy Ramsden talks to Mihai Maniutiu about directing. The Taming of the Shrew in England and his native Romania

We'd met to discuss his Leicester production of The Taming of the Shrew but Mihai Maniutiu's best story was about Molire's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme which he had directed in his native Romania during Ceaucescu's days.

Official Night came, bringing the communist apparatchiks. Not a titter. "It was about a dictator, you see. They knew who it was and daren't laugh. They were afraid of what others would say. 'You're laughing? Why's that?'" They saved their laughter for an interval visit to the toilet perhaps? "With Ceaucescu, none trusted the toilets."

Fantasy laughter in the stalls? No wonder, after the dictator's fall, Maniutiu was drawn to Ionesco's absurd world. His production of The Lesson divided audiences by age. A woman professor told him, "I know it's good theatre but I won't come again. I thought I'd been clever enough but you've made me realise what the (communist) system did to me." He adds, "She came out of a lie. Like an exorcism."

Students though laughed - at relief they would not have to go through such lessons and with the clear conscience of knowing they had been on the streets effecting change. With such a background you might think Maniutiu would rush to the dark side of Petruchio's taming lesson for Kate. Not a bit. Dividing Shakespeare's comedies into Black and Pink he finds Shrew the lightest shade of pale. As You Like It and Twelfth Night explore much murkier territory. Shrew was written "to give joy to the audience".

Which is not the same as pure pleasure. Joy for him is pleasure lifted to a spiritual level, a term he infuses with specific religious intention. Shakespeare he told his actors in Romania, "is not a writer but cosmic energy you charge yourself with." And Shrew is "like a fairy tale".

Energy, comic or not, is what his 12-hour rehearsal days call for. Twelve years ago in Romania his last Shrew ("Same point of view but I'm now a lot wiser") rehearsed for seven months - Leicester offers under seven weeks. And Maniutiu's Richard III (it toured England last year and earned him the Leicester commission) had 90 days' rehearsal on stage with full set and costumes. Here he has three days.

Pinkness notwithstanding, the director describes Shrew as "A strange, savage love story." Petruchio and Kate are "like two savage, sincere people living separated in a civilised, false society." The words have the clear ring of Rousseau, noble savages and corrupting civilisation. Petruchio is "A strange single person in a foreign society. Kate is isolated too. But they are the same race and they recognise when they meet they are not strangers." Maniutiu sketches a billowing pyramid with his arms - the comic process by which they come to each other is a gradual realising but in jumps. "They realise they are not alone but it takes time for both to overcome their loneliness" "This is the most wonderful love story. What Shakespeare did about love in a tragic way in Romeo and Juliet he did comically in The Shrew." As the Veronese lovers are pitted against a hostile society, so are Kate and Petruchio.

But the "false society" must not be risible. "Each must have their own depth or Kate and Petruchio will not stand up." For instance Bianca will be neither sweet young thing nor arch manipulator but reflect the director's belief that "Women have an additional power, vitality because they have the ability to give life. They are privileged by God."

Kate's deprivations are no problem. "In every scene there is an apparent situation and a real situation." The cruelty, apparently, is only apparent. Really Kate, treated by everyone as an ugly duckling finds in Petruchio the person who sees her as a swan. Or, in a fine turn of Maniutiu's excellent English, "Someone who says to her 'You're a great duck".

Previews from tonight. Press night April 25. Until May 13. Tickets: 0116 2539797

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