In the blood-line

Federico Garcia Lorca's work is as Spanish as flamenco dance or the Catholic mass. So can its rhythms register on an English stage? By Trader Faulkner
Deeply rooted as they are in Andalusian tradition, the plays of Federico Garcia Lorca (1898-1936) are virtually impossible to translate into English.

Nothing daunted, two of our leading theatre companies, the Young Vic in London and the Northern Stage Company in Newcastle, are currently poised to present parallel stagings of Lorca's Blood Wedding - the first in a new translation by the Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes, the second in a version by the Irish poet, Brendan Keneally. Meanwhile, early next year, Hollywood will release The Assassination of Lorca, a new film, starring Andy Garcia, based upon Ian Gibson's ground-breaking investigation into the poet's death.

Concerning Blood Wedding, the first - and most difficult to stage - of the three modern classics (alongside Yerma and The House of Bernarda Alba) upon which Lorca's reputation largely now rests, the playwright was specific: "In my poetic tragedy Blood Wedding, I have tried to disinter the very beginnings of drama in that most primitive of dramatic structures, the Catholic Mass, and, as in symphonic music, each of my plays has its own particular rhythm which must be observed."

Back in the 1970s, I took Lorca's sister Isabel, who had sat in with her brother on rehearsals for the premiere of Blood Wedding in Madrid in 1933, to a London performance of one of his plays in English. "Well?" I asked. "What do you think?"

"In my brother's plays, you have to think fast. They don't have the rhythm right."

Ted Hughes sees the problem of "pulling it off with Lorca" as stemming from what the Spanish refer to as "Flema Britanica" (British phlegm) - our native temperament, in other words. What is natural to Lorca's characters in Blood Wedding lies, according to Hughes, in "the explosion behind each word, the great howl behind it all... the inner ferocity and the outer simplicity". "Spanish," he concludes simply, "can't be Englished."

Blood Wedding, Yerma, The House of Bernarda Alba, Dona Rosita the Spinster (with its Chekhovian resonances) and the little-known surrealist play, When Five Years Have Passed (finished on 19 August 1931, five years to the day before he was killed) - all serve to illustrate the central theme of Lorca's work, a deep frustration, into which are woven the permutations of time, love and death.

Perhaps the most successful English approach to Lorca so far has been Lindsay Kemp's Cruel Garden, a piece he created for Ballet Rambert in 1979. Subsequently televised for the BBC, this electric evocation of Lorca, through characters in his literature, brought the poet visually into focus by means of modern dance. An equally vivid realisation, this time in terms of flamenco, was the Antonio Gades/ Carlos Saura film of Blood Wedding.

Successful as both interpretations were in refashioning Lorca's imagery as dance-dramas, they did of course omit the main ingredient - the playwright's unique speech rhythms and poetic style. Lorca wrote to be spoken (and sung). "Once printed," he said, "my words lie dead on the page."

As a young actor in the Fifties, determined to reveal the enigmatic man behind the mask of the poet, through a combination of his own words, his songs and his native Spanish dance, I began to study flamenco in the Sacromonte Caves of Granada. One day, the gypsy girl who was teaching me showed me - by dancing her flamenco soleres, while her brother accompanied her, not on the guitar, but simply by reciting one of Lorca's famous Gypsy Ballads - the subtle complexities of Lorca's writing that are lost in translation.

Apart from his varied gifts as a dramatist, theatre director, actor and designer, as a poet who became the "vox populi" for the many illiterate Andalusians who recited his Gypsy Ballads without being able to read them, and as an artist (his friend Salvador Dali once organised a successful exhibition of Lorca's drawings in Barcelona), Lorca had also trained as a musician. According to his musical mentor, the composer Manuel de Falla, he had the talent to become an international concert pianist; in Spain, New York, Cuba and Argentina, people listened fascinated as he accompanied his own songs at the piano. He was lionised wherever he went. But he was a man with a guilty secret..

Wildly attracted during his adolescence in Granada to two beautiful girls who didn't respond, shy to approach them and uneasy in their presence, Lorca soon discovered that "I share certain passions with Oscar Wilde and the wonderful Verlaine. I too carry a lily that cannot be watered."

Given Granada's macho society of rigid, provincial Catholicism, it's not difficult to understand in retrospect Lorca's terror of revealing his sexual identity. Today he could have come out of the closet with gay abandon. But would he have become the writer that perhaps his sterile loneliness made him? Or the close friend that both Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel envied?

That stormy triangular friendship began when they were undergraduates at the Residencia, Madrid's Oxbridge of the 1920s. Lorca was mentally and physically obsessed by Dali. Dali resisted. The macho, anarchistic Bunuel became jealous of the artistic affinity between poet and painter and ultimately succeeded in alienating Dali from Lorca's charismatic influence. In 1927, Dali and Bunuel collaborated to make the surrealist film Un Chien Andalou, a succes fou in Paris. Its title and one of its characters are a parody on Lorca. Lorca, feeling utterly betrayed, referred to it as "esa mierdecita asi de pequenita" (that little shit of a film).

Jilted by his boyfriend, a sculptor - who had, the poet lamented, "abandoned me to Marry! ... A Woman! ... English! ... who works for Elizabeth Arden!" - and needing to get free of Europe, Lorca arrived in New York in 1929 to enrol for a course in English at Columbia University. He never managed to learn a word. He was in Wall Street the morning of the Crash, which he described in 16 lines of graphic prose. His New York Poems, some of the finest he wrote, contain a blistering indictment of the materialism and inhumanity to be found in any great metropolis today. Thereafter, until his assassination, his literary and theatrical genius flowered.

Shot by the Fascist Black Squad at dawn on 19 August 1936, Lorca is buried in an unmarked grave with three others: along with two small-time bullfighters and a school teacher with a wooden leg, the grave digger remembered a poet who wore a little bow tie.

The moon drifts like an obsession through Lorca's poetry. As Greenwich Observatory has confirmed, on the night of 18 August 1936, there was no moon.

n `Blood Wedding': Ted Hughes version opens Friday, Young Vic, The Cut, London SE1 (0171-928 6363); Brendan Keneally version opens 23 October, Newcastle Playhouse (0191 230 5151)