Speaking in tongues: Some actors only get through a performance with the help of tourist phrase-books, how-to tapes and parrot-fashion phonetics. Sabine Durrant reports

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The Independent Culture
MOST actors will tell you the words come first. To get the part right, actors need to know exactly what they're saying. Or so the theory goes. Imagine, then, being Wojtek Pszoniak. He plays Mr Miller in The Deep Blue Sea. He's on stage for roughly 30 minutes, has 95 of Rattigan's finest lines to deal with and doesn't speak a word of English.

Or at least he didn't when he first arrived four months ago. Wojtek Pszoniak is 'Poland's Olivier' - according to his PR person anyway. In Poland and France, between which he divides his time, he's rushed off his slingbacks - the National Theatre of Warsaw one minute, the Theatre National de l'Odeon the next. But when Karel Reisz invited him to England, to perform in a language he didn't understand, he jumped at the chance. 'I knew Karel Reisz, this big director, his films. And I had big pleasure in English,' he says, after some months of intensive tuition at the International School. 'To be acting in English is really something.'

Mr Miller (or Mr Muller), the shadowy 'foreign' doctor, is usually played by an English actor with a faked German accent. But Karel Reisz, who had seen Pszoniak perform in Paris, wanted the real thing. 'The part is actually written for someone more urbane, who's lived in England for a long time,' says Reisz. 'But I made the decision that I wanted this sardonic outsider to be a sardonic outsider. Wojtek brings an unmistakeable non-English history which reverberates in an undeclared way. The way he moves, the way he wears clothes is absolutely not English. It would be very hard to act.'

Pszoniak, having translated the script with a dictionary, word by word, asked a friend to tape his part for him ('white, without interpretation, like an answerphone'), arrived in London on a Sunday and went straight ('completely plongee') into rehearsals on the Monday. At first they were traumatic. Reisz was keen that Pszoniak should 'hear the music' of the lines, but didn't actually want him to perfect his language. According to Pszoniak he kept crying: ' 'Wojtek. Forget this English. This is not for now. Try. Play. Act.' It was not very easy for me.'

Pszoniak had asked for a voice coach and he had four 'audiences', as he puts it, with Joan Washington. She didn't want to 'over-ride' his accent, but to 'modify' it. 'Polish very much swallows the ends of the lines, like a wave trickling back on itself,' she says, 'but in English the point often comes at the end of the line, so we worked on keeping going. Polish is also quite whining, moany almost, so we tried to get his delivery into a more positive note.' The result is an extraordinarily effective performance: Pszoniak's lines sound sung rather than spoken, each word, clear in itself, coming together in an unexpected tune. Another character in the play compliments him on his use of English idioms, but this Miller sounds, intriguingly, as if he comes from another world.

Pszoniak's experience is not unique. Helen Blatch, an actress with the Royal Shakespeare Company, is undergoing a parallel one. She plays Katina, the Greek servant in The Gift of the Gorgon. Scuttling around, neck- deep in black, scowling and gabbling away as if surrounded by aliens, she looks Greek, she sounds Greek, but doesn't understand a word of it.

Blatch saw the part advertised on the RSC noticeboard and, keen to work with Peter Hall and Judy Dench, put herself forward. Ideally, a director with a foreign-speaker to cast would find a foreign-speaker, but Peter Hall needed an actress who could perform elsewhere in the RSC repertoire and when Blatch went for the part, armed with a How to Speak Greek tape, she got it.

She learnt her lines by listening to them. 'The BBC tape was a good starting point - the most useful thing for my purposes was the Greek voices you can hear in the background when they go to the village to buy tomatoes, those rougher sounds that I needed for this character. Then I taped my part with the help of a very nice Greek lady from the Greek embassy. I thought I was pronouncing as well as she was, but there's an arabic 'wwrrrou' underneath the voice that's natural to Greek people that we don't have. That was hard. In the end, my part became a piece of music - I tried to treat each sentence as one word.'

Forgetting your lines, if you're speaking a foreign language, is even more risky than usual - improvisation, for one thing, is out. Pszoniak finds the prospect alarming - 'I just wait, I hope . . .' - but Blatch is undaunted. She's already added an extra nuance to her role with the help of a tourist guidebook. 'There's one point where I was uneasy saying nothing, when Judy tells me to open the door and I don't want to. I knew I needed something so I looked up some words and now I mutter 'indaxi, synome', like we'd say 'OK, all right'. Tourist- speak, but the sort of thing a peasant woman might mutter.'

Blatch and Pszoniak's parts are, thankfully, small ('but important,' adds Pszoniak). The Besht Tellers, the Jewish theatre troupe who've recently returned from a 'story-telling' trip to Russia, had rather more of their 'adopted' language to learn. Initially, they intended to tell their traditional tales in English, putting only key phrases into Russian. 'But then we thought the essence of story- telling is to have communication with your audience,' says Danny Scheinmann, 'and it would be pretentious to go all that way to speak gobbledegook.'

Instead, then, they simplified the plots, tried to slot the same phrases into different stories and learnt their parts by ear with the help of a Russian friend. They stumbled over some of the pronunciation (there was a hitch over 'evrei', the Russian word for Jew - 'it's hard not to say without being derogative. You mustn't over- emphasise the 'r' I think') and, for much of the time, they didn't have a clue what each other was saying, but otherwise the venture was a success. 'The Russian words are very chewy,' says Robbie Gringras. 'Very pleasant to say. We actually enjoyed getting our mouths around them.'

The Besht Tellers' Russian accents went down so well, in fact, their audience thought they were fluent. 'People would insist on talking to us after a performance. We were so lousy we couldn't even order a cup of coffee, so the only thing to do was say things like 'You are humble and noble', or 'Your majesty is very kind.' '

People come up to Helen Blatch, too, in Greek restaurants in London: 'I can only nod weakly and say, 'The boat is coming round the headland.' ' But Pszoniak is probably left alone; he could never be mistaken for a native speaker. It's the joy of his performance and his own sadness. 'You see I feel English,' he says.

The Deep Blue Sea is at the Apollo (071-494 5070); The Gift of the Gorgon at Wyndhams (071-867 1116); The Besht Tellers at the Arts Theatre (071-836 2132)

(Photograph omitted)