Satisfying drama has to begin with characters who are fitted into plots from which morality and politics emerge. Go at it the other way round and what results is usually the kind of agitprop that gave Theatre in Education a bad name.
Although Lin Coghlan's With Love from Nicolae has roots in TIE, this new play is very much character-based: it is drama rather than morality play. To precis: Nicky's Romanian father, Nicolae, defected to Britain, where he met Maggie, Nicky's Irish mother. Their affair was short and Nicky has never met his father. He does however meet his father's family when Maggie takes 18-year-old Nicky to Romania to visit his family.
During a rehearsal break at the Bristol Old Vic where it is being staged, Medeea Marinescu, the actor who plays Nicky's cousin, says: "The play doesn't give answers. It gives questions. My character doesn't solve her life, but she'll succeed."
What is her idea of success?
"It's difficult to express yourself. It's to discover who you are. It's what you can do. I am what I think and what I am able to do."
Is this you or your character?
She's thinking in a foreign tongue. She's young and open-hearted and so smiles while she thinks. "Both," she replies.
This is just the answer Coghlan would want. She spent three years working on the script and she says that her aim was to encourage "emotional responses from complex characters".
The commission came from Clarie Middleton, whose Arts Council visit to Romania opened doors for a collaboration with Teatrul Dramatic in Constanza. Coghlan visited Constanza for the first of many workshops teasing out credible attitudes and dialogue. She asked young people to look forward 10 years and found that Romanians who had been children under the Ceaucescu dictatorship hoped for travel and harmonious family lives.
Their British counterparts, brought together for similar workshops by the Avon Drama Association, saw themselves as Thatcher's children and anticipated anomie, divorce and unemployment.
She invited Romanians to improvise what a 68-year-old woman who had lived in the same house for 40 years might say. Pupils at the Clevedon Community School near Bristol were asked what they knew of Romania. "A dump," they said - and that's exactly how Nicky describes the country before events change him. Coghlan wanted Maggie (the Irish character with whom Dublin-born Coghlan began) to become friends with her old lover's sister. Fine, said some real Romanian women, but not so fast. That scene was rewritten with authentic suspicion. "My house is full of drafts," says Coghlan.
Her play tours until mid-October. Half the actors' schedule is for workshops covering what the brochure for the play describes as "themes for follow-up discussion with students": language and communication; Romania, Ireland and England; family and friendship; freedom and betrayal; communism and capitalism.
With Love From Nicolae is produced jointly by the Bristol Old Vic and Clarie Middleton's Cedar Day Productions, and is directed by Coghlan and Philip Osment.
At Bristol Old Vic until September 20, then at Darlington Civic Theatre (October 2-4), Bracknell Wilde Theatre (October 7-8), Halifax Victoria Theatre (October 13-15) and Liverpool Royal Court (October 16-18). For details on the play, resource packs and workshops contact Clear Day Productions on 0181 699 7140 or 0171 274 8433.