David Benedict on theatre

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The Independent Culture
Just as the Royal family must believe the world smells of fresh paint, most people must imagine that playwrights are an unusually articulate, well-behaved and well-dressed bunch who, when not huddled over the creation of a masterpiece, are much given to appearing at awards ceremonies.

Directors will tell you a different story, describing lives of drunkenness, if not downright debauchery. Few, however, end up categorised as one of "the great unwashed" like the Galician playwright Ramon del Valle Inclan who carried a seemingly pathological hatred of soap and water to the point of losing an arm to gangrene after being speared in a brawl. How unlike the home life of our own dear Tom Stoppard, the current exemplar of the great British literary tradition of which we are justifiably proud.

Since the Bard of Avon called, the word has reigned supreme in our culture. We have left the bolder, more visionary style of writing to the rest of Europe. It is this style which inspires David Farr (right), the absurdly young artistic director of the Gate Theatre which previously spawned both Giles Croft, artistic director of the Watford Palace Theatre, and Stephen Daldry, Royal Court supremo.

It's quite a distance from Godalming to Galicia, but Farr has evidently looked hard before leaping into the fray with Silver Face, the first of two Valle Inclan plays he is directing at the Gate. Both "barbarous comedies" were written in the early part of the century and concern characters driven by compulsive forces. "They're incredibly watchable, but difficult to perform with casts of 30. They read like movies. He has extraordinary stage directions with herds of cattle moving across the stage," explains Farr. That explains why he is to Spain what Joyce is to Ireland: revered but rarely performed. Farr's productions are both British premieres. This may be another case of archaeology, but he's confident that this is rediscovery rather than theatrical grave-digging.

'Silver Face' opens tonight at the Gate Theatre, London W11 (0171-229 5387)