"We've played Stratford, London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Prague, Barcelona, Liverpool, Los Angeles and New York, and this is the quietest city we have ever been in," Royal Shakespeare Company director Terry Hands said at the British Embassy last night.

"We're just assuming they don't like us. We're presuming they don't particularly like Shakespeare, and they don't like us."

Hands was smiling as he said the Washington audience is less than raucously enthusiastic about his production of "Much Ado About Nothing" at the Kennedy Center. It was a smile that any audience would stare at hungrily, trying to decipher its mixture of receptiveness and aloofness, its ability to give softly and flatly spoken words a slicing edge.

"We've worried," he said. "We thought, 'A bit more vulgar or a bit heavier? Faster?' I don't blame the audience. We haven't reached them. We're assuming it's us and we must find another style or something to penetrate the Washington public. Oh no, I'm not blaming the public. You never blame the public. The public is always right."

Hands and his troupe were having no trouble last night with the public, which was basically an adoring one at the party British Ambassador Sir Oliver Wright and Lady Marjory Wright threw for the company. About 100 members of the Washington theater community introduced themselves to the members of the RSC cast and then stood beaming at people like "Much Ado" star Derek Jacobi, their smiles much less complicated than the one Hands demonstrated.

Kennedy Center chairman Roger Stevens was there, all Washington decorum, but just behind him were the defiantly pompadoured heads, the leather jackets, the sweat shirts ornamented with floating scarves around the neck, the blue jeans and work shoes and the occasional perfectly tailored British suit for contrast.

As a smiling messenger reached over the crowd to hand someone a small blue booklet, Folger Theatre director John Neville-Andrews laughed.

"That's what I need," he said. "A British passport."

From one cluster a voice introduced a Briton to an American, saying, "We are fighting for the Folger. We all are. We are going to win.'"

It has been, overall, a theatrically minded month in Washington. The announcement that the Folger Theatre is closing was soon followed by word that the New Playwrights' Theater may close and that was followed by Peter Sellars' description of his plans for a national theater at the Kennedy Center. In any conversation about theater in Washington last night, pessimism melted into optimism in the pause between two sentences.

"We've been working very hard to make them realize their mistake," said Neville-Andrews. "We've opened up -- talking about alternatives. Washington really needs the Folger Theatre."

Jacobi had done a radio interview, he said, "apropos of the closing of the Folger, which I think would be a disaster."

He has also, throughout the tour, been talking with fellow cast members and others about why America does not have a national theater.

"Terry Hands was saying if you haven't got a national theater, it's because you don't want one," Jacobi said.

And after Jacobi and the others had gone into dinner, Hands waited, smiling, and said more about the idea.

"It won't be easy," he said. "The process of a national theater must be one of the right to fail. I think that's going to be very difficult because it's so against the American psychology. I say to my directors, for every one success, they can have two failures. It takes patience. To build theater you must be very, very patient."