Joyce Nettles, the producer of the Art-Inter Odeon company's version of the play, is all too aware of the prejudices her production will encounter. "I can't pretend that a lot of non-theatre-goers are saying to themselves, 'Gosh, Murder in the Cathedral in Romanian at the Almeida, I must go and see that.' This production is a terrible gamble, but the alternative was not bringing it over and that was a gamble not worth taking."
Her gambler's instincts may well be rewarded because British theatre- goers have shown a warmth towards foreigners not shared by, say, the proponents of the Asylum Bill. The Polish Theatr Nowi, the Georgian Film Actors' Studio and the Russian Maly Theatre companies have all done well over here, giving the lie to our Eurosceptic "Up yours, Delors" image. Groups from Africa, Japan and India have also enjoyed great success in our theatres. Why do we embrace foreign actors so wholeheartedly when as a nation we appear to regard people from abroad as fundamentally ghastly?
William Burdett-Coutts, artistic director of the Riverside Theatre in London and the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh, has brought more than a hundred foreign-language productions to our shores over the last decade and a half. The latest - Tbilisi's Mardjanishvili State Academic Drama Theatre company's production of King Lear - receives its UK premiere at the Edinburgh Festival next month. He is as well-qualified as anyone to pinpoint the reasons for our theatrical xenophilia. "The exotic is attractive," he opines. "Have you ever seen Georgians? I hate to tag them, but they're the Italians of the former Soviet Union. They're larger-than-life people. They're like Asterix and Obelix, characters of magnitude. They're magnetic, and that comes across on stage."
Foreign companies also throw themselves into acting in a manner which British performers, schooled in the fine arts of reserve, might find beyond them. "People from abroad treat acting in a far more - dare I use the word? - dramatic way," Burdett-Coutts observes. "It means more to them. Here actors are just acting. Abroad it almost has the importance of religion. In India or Japan, actors have an aura about them. I know of one Indian company that prayed before they went on stage, and the Japanese go through the same sort of preparation of the stage. That invests the production with more meaning. Our up-front attitude to life and to acting lacks that passion."
It was that sense of vitality which first appealed to Nettles when she saw the Romanian company from Bucharest performing Richard III over here in 1994. "I was on the Olivier panel that year and was overdosing on theatre," she recalls. "Yet I knew within three minutes of Richard III that I was in the presence of a remarkable production. I said to myself consciously, 'This is what theatre should be.' We've lost that.
"The Romanians are much more - and I'll get shot for saying this - passionate than British actors, less cerebral," she continues. "Their productions are very physical and visually hypnotic. There is a lot of movement; it's almost like dance. Their inability to understand the text 100 per cent gives them a freedom which British actors wouldn't dare take. They have a very fluid approach to Shakespeare which allows them much greater scope. An English company would spend days working out what 'I know a hawk from a handsaw' means. A Romanian company would say, 'We don't understand that line, let's cut it.' We're so bound up with the words of Shakespeare and the intellectual approach that we lose sight of the fact that it was written to be performed. In any other country, that obsession with the word just isn't there."
Foreign actors, then, have the advantage of their very foreignness. "I love the sound of the language," Burdett-Coutts enthuses. "I'm one of those people who doesn't read the subtitles or listen in the earphones [often provided at foreign-language productions]. You lose the nuance of every line, but it's more like listening to music."
"Of the four greatest productions of Shakespeare I've ever seen," Nettles rhapsodises, "three were not in English. The text is released in another language. You're not waiting to see how the actor delivers the 'To be or not to be' speech. I worked on the Ralph Fiennes production of Hamlet and saw it hundreds of times. Every night the audience were just waiting for that speech. The actors and the audience are released with a foreign language, yet you have the vague comfort that you know the story. If the Romanians had said, 'We want to do this obscure Romanian classic', I wouldn't have had the courage to do it."
When the members of Art-Inter Odeon told her they wanted to bring over Murder in the Cathedral - blacklisted under Ceausescu - Nettles set about sending out 400 letters to raise the pounds 17,000 ("the price of a couple of RSC frocks") needed to mount the production. Thanks to the generosity of British donors, she hit the target within three months. She still encountered numerous logistical difficulties in transporting the 35-person company from Romania; "It was much easier having a baby," she says with feeling.
Now they're here, though, the status of Art-Inter Odeon will be enhanced in their own country. "The Romanians are very impressed by anything to do with the English-speaking world," Nettles reveals. "For this tiny baby company, to which we've painfully given birth on both sides of Europe, to say they've played in London will put them up a notch in their own culture."
Marcel Iures, the statuesque actor with finely chiselled features who plays Becket, is already a figure of considerable stature in Romania (he has appeared in Interview with the Vampire and Mission: Impossible and is soon to star with Nicole Kidman in Peacemaker). But Iures suffered from state censorship during the Ceausescu era, and for him Murder in the Cathedral has especial significance. Wearing white Nike trainers, he is relaxing the morning after the London premiere of Mission: Impossible in an armchair in a plush suite at the Dorchester. (This is just one of the perks of acting opposite Tom Cruise - another is getting Cruise to be a patron of the company.) Iures reflects that "it is a play about a man saying 'No' to the state. He has the courage to stand up against authority. Ceausescu was a demolition man. He destroyed half our churches. But the need to believe is the same everywhere in the world. We're all Becket from time to time."
Burdett-Coutts also reads political significance into the Georgian production of Lear. He first saw it before the country's elections last October. "The play is redolent of them discovering their own nation," he muses. "The madness Lear goes through is like the madness of war Georgia has been through. Very rarely does Shakespeare relate so directly to our lives because we're more comfortable over here. It has a far stronger meaning for them."
So producers are struggling against the poverty of companies over there (established stars in Romania, for instance, are paid just $180 per month), and the "little Englander" attitudes of audiences over here. But for Nettles at least, the struggle has been worth it. "We've been taught to put money above everything," she muses. "The huge American influence in television, film and theatre has made it very difficult for someone to say, 'I'm an artist', without being laughed off the street. Everything has to be name- led. It's not a question of 'How good's the script?', it's 'Who's in it?' Art is finding it very hard to survive here as an accepted part of our lives. We've lost our spirituality. That's something Marcel's production can bring back. Perhaps now my friends will realise that I haven't been mad these past 18 months."
n The Romanian theatre group Art-Inter Odeon Foundation perform 'Murder in the Cathedral' at the Almeida Theatre, London, N1 (0171-359 4404) from 30 July to 10 August. Tbilisi's Mardjanishvili State Academic Drama Theatre Company perform 'King Lear' at the Music Hall, the Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh, EH2 (0131-226 2428) from 13-18 AugustReuse content