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Youthful company scores a coup. Veteran actors are directing, while Branagh earns spotlight

``Sold out for tonight's performance,'' read the sign, while a long line of people stood eagerly waiting for last-minute return tickets. Around the corner, another group of theatergoers were trying to purchase the few remaining seats for future performances. The show in question, however, was not Andrew Lloyd Webber's latest blockbuster, but ``Hamlet,'' modestly presented by a newly created drama troupe, the Renaissance Theater Company (RTC).

So what's all the fuss?

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For starters, the company was founded by the 27-year-old actor Kenneth Branagh (recently seen in the TV miniseries ``The Fortunes of War''), and his equally young acting colleague, David Parfitt, both former members of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Mr. Branagh, in particular, made a stunning acting debut a few years ago. Chosen by the RSC as the youngest actor ever to play the title role in one of its productions of ``Henry V,'' he prompted many observers to ponder: the next Olivier?

Such an epithet has been used many times before, but rarely has it stuck so tenaciously. After leaving the Royal Shakespeare, Branagh has continued to deliver attention-catching stage and film work, including writing two plays, ``Tell Me Honestly'' and ``Public Enemy,'' both of which received much critical acclaim.

And not unlike Olivier himself, Branagh is trying his hand at establishing a drama company - with almost unimagined success. Now in its second season, this youthful troupe (most of its members are under 30) has pulled off an especially clever coup by persuading three of Britain's top stage actors - Derek Jacobi, Dame Judi Dench, and Geraldine McEwan - to make their directing debuts in productions of ``Hamlet,'' ``Much Ado About Nothing,'' and ``As You Like It,'' respectively.

The result has been little short of sensational. Before the three shows arrived in London for a limited run (in repertoire through October at the West End's Phoenix Theatre), word had already gotten around: The company's countrywide tour had been rapturously received, and deservedly so. Using the simplest of effects - a few potted trees here, a drape or two there - each production sparkles with invigorating freshness.

There has been much critical talk in recent years among British acting professionals about ``director's theater.'' Stage productions, particularly in renderings of the Bard, so the claim goes, are inordinately dominated by the director's interpretive slant. By uniquely employing three top-rank actors, each to direct one of the productions, the RTC has succeeded, with a master stroke, in reversing this trend. Mr. Jacobi, Dame Judi, and Miss McEwan have all spent many years performing Shakespeare and other classics, both for the Royal Shakespeare and Britain's National Theatre; they bring to the newly formed RTC an exceptionally rich backlog of acting experience.

And it shows. McEwan's ``As You Like It'' is a marvelous display of ensemble playing. The story, congenially reset in Edwardian times, celebrates in the jolliest of ways the mental split between stuffy city folk and their earthier country cousins. The pace is breathtakingly swift, and characterizations are, for the most part, striking.

In ``Much Ado About Nothing,'' Dench's determined emphasis is on telling a story, making this tale of young love - in the near-tragic form of Hero and Claudio and the ever-bickering Beatrice and Benedick - an exciting and often acutely amusing insight into human psychology.

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But it is in Jacobi's ``Hamlet'' that the ensemble makes its most stirring impact. And, as with the other productions, the singling out of Kenneth Branagh cannot be avoided, this time in the title role. In ``As You Like It,'' the magnetically watchable actor very nearly steals the show with a singularly hilarious portrayal of Touchstone in stooped, sleazy burlesque style. In ``Much Ado About Nothing,'' by contrast, he cuts a dashing and witty Benedick, while in ``Hamlet,'' all his stage talents come together with superlative force. Indeed, his performance has already been dubbed the most memorable of the doomed prince since Jacobi himself filled the part.

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