"Why should we talk about the past?" asks the Catalan director Calixto Bieito. "Because we want to remember the idea of utopia." Best known in this country for his controversial versions of Macbeth and Hamlet, Bieito is now part of a unique venture to stage George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia. His Teatre Romea company is collaborating with two British outfits, the West Yorkshire Playhouse, in Leeds, and Northern Stage, which occupies the Newcastle Playhouse.
It's the first time that this politically acute account of the Spanish Civil War has been adapted for theatre. For Bieito, who is based in Barcelona, the book has become increasingly relevant. "It's important to talk about utopia now because the world is dominated by intolerant and bellicose politicians such as Bush, Blair and Aznar. During the 1930s revolution in Barcelona, it was possible for people to seize freedom and to be tolerant. Today, the message of the past is that we must fight for peace and diversity."
Isn't that too idealistic? "The right wing says that we must talk only about practical, everyday things, but that's totally stupid," Bieito says. "We have to talk about utopia because that's the only way to change things and to make a better society." We have to remember: "If enough people want to, it's possible to change the world."
Bieito sees Orwell as a "man of ideals", a socialist who went to Barcelona in 1936 to defend the revolution, an uprising of which the aim was not only freedom but also resistance to General Franco's fascists, who had rebelled against a left-wing government. While there, he was wounded by a sniper and witnessed the sectarian plotting of the Communist Party, which took its orders from Moscow and opposed both fascism and anarchism. Left-wing infighting, Orwell argued, allowed Franco to win.
Homage to Catalonia opens in Leeds and then visits Paris, Newcastle and Barcelona. It is scripted by the Catalan writer Pablo Ley and the English playwright Allan Baker. Five Spanish and five English actors will perform the bilingual production. For the Spanish, the project has enormous resonance: Bieito reminds me that it was a taboo to speak of the fascist era for many years after Franco's death in 1975.
"I remember the week of holidays after Franco's death, but I don't recall his regime," Bieito says. "To summon up those times, the actors and I talked with our families - my grandfather was a socialist in the civil war." He talks warmly of the "tradition of anarchism in Catalonia" and argues: "The ideas of the Communists were good, but the people behaved badly. They suffered from the usual human problems - ambition and egoism." And although he believes that the internecine conflicts of the left were "catastrophic", he stresses the fact that "all Europe was complicit with Franco. For 40 years, he destroyed Spanish culture, installing the biggest mediocrities in power."
Bieito is also angry about revisionist history. At the moment, on Spanish state TV, "there's a new series about the civil war, Tell Me What Happened, which claims that fascism 'was not so bad' - which is complete bullshit." At the end of the civil war, the fascists massacred the leftists in Catalonia. "It was a very sad time," Bieito says.
On the British side, the project started more than a decade ago, says Alan Lyddiard of Northern Stage. "I was appointed the artistic director in 1992, and over the past 11 years we've staged new versions of Orwell's Animal Farm - which is still touring - and 1984." In 2003, Orwell's centenary, Lyddiard "thought it would be great to do a trilogy and include Homage".
He was inspired by meeting Orwell's adopted son during the tour of 1984. "This guy came up to me and said he was Richard Blair, and at first I was puzzled - it didn't click that Orwell's real name was Eric Blair," he says. "Richard was at the show with a friend whose father had also fought in the Spanish Civil War. Meeting these two got me thinking about doing a stage version of Homage." Meanwhile, Bieito and Ley had been discussing the idea of staging Orwell's book for about 10 years.
"It was amazing that two sets of people were thinking about the same idea in different corners of Europe," Lyddiard says. The British Council put the two sides in touch, and then the West Yorkshire Playhouse - plus the Bobigny arts centre in Paris - also came on board. "We tend to be too frightened of Europe," Lyddiard says. "So this project is a great opportunity to work across frontiers. By having international partners, we also had a much longer rehearsal time than normal." That allowed the actors and the show's director, the Catalan Josep Galindo, to spend time together and research Orwell's ideas in depth.
Ian Brown, the head of West Yorkshire Playhouse, describes the project as "a real challenge" in logistical terms. He points out: "It's easy to want to be international, but doing it is much harder." It takes "a lot of behind-the-scenes work to set it up. There are different tax regimes, different conditions of work, different languages - there's less freedom across borders than you might expect. This is why it doesn't happen more often: people don't have the time or resources to do it."
As well as difficulties in "overcoming the rules of European funding" on a £160,000 project, there's the theatrical difficulties of "working on a bilingual script". He says the show is "about 75 per cent English and 25 per cent Catalan". The division between the languages "is more poetic than literal", so don't expect the Spanish to speak only Catalan or the Brits only English. "There's a bit of role-swapping - the production is quite fluid and European in style." But, Brown stresses, British audiences will be able to follow the Catalan by reading surtitles.
But how relevant is the Spanish Civil War today? "Oh, it still lives on for many people," Brown says. "Recently, some war graves from that time were discovered in Catalonia, so the atrocities of the past still haunt the present." The conflict is also relevant once again in Britain, he believes. "It really got people activated, and the Thirties were a time when British people did stand up for freedom. Now, we are going through a time when people are marching in protest again. The war in Iraq has shaken people up."
When I ask Brown about Orwell's view of the Communist Party, he says: "The most depressing thing about the left is its tendency to split into small groups, with people spending all their energy on protecting their sectarian beliefs. Human nature being what it is, it's difficult to have a broad front against something - the British experience of unity against Hitler in the Second World War was exceptional."
"In this adaptation," Brown says, "what comes across is that Orwell was as confused as everyone else about the political quarrels between the various sections of the left. Nowadays, it's not easy to get your head around these complex conflicts, and, anyway, they are really not the most interesting thing about the book."
Lyddiard agrees: "People may not understand the minutiae of Orwell's politics, but I think they do understand his belief that some people will always dissent from the majority line, and that it's in our nature to ask questions. Orwell argued pessimistically that humans 'are unable to achieve utopia'. So, in the theatre, we are trying to achieve what is so hard to do in life: to come together from different parts of Europe and work in a common cause. On stage, you can create imaginary worlds. That's my idea of utopia."
For Bieito, Spanish conservatism is the enemy of both utopia and the arts: a right-wing victory in this year's general elections "will be terrible for culture; the right wing has no cultural project - for them, culture is merely a business. All they want to know is how many people go to a museum or visit a theatre. Just numbers, but no real feeling for the arts. No vision."
Talking of vision, Lyddiard says: "Orwell was a visionary, but a very English one. The stories he tells are simple fables about good and evil, and power and corruption. His clarity makes a deep emotional impact. He never overcomplicates things. He's also quintessentially English - think of 1984, with all those London proles having their pints of wallop in the pub.
"England can sometimes be xenophobic," he adds, "because we are an isolated nation, an island. For me, the Homage to Catalonia project has been like a long conversation over a number of years with my friends in Europe. This summer, we're closing our theatre for rebuilding; when it reopens, in autumn 2005, it will be as a European Centre for the Performing Arts. What I'm trying to do is reinvigorate European collaboration - that's the way forward for theatre in this country."
Brown agrees. "This creative collaboration links us directly with European theatre," he says. "The fact that Orwell, Catalonia and a civil war that stirred the British conscience are central to this project makes it so meaningful." He says that although most people have heard of Big Brother and Room 101, few know about Orwell's work. For that reason, Lyddiard sees his obsession with Orwell as educational. "Big Brother is a perfect example of our surveillance culture. I enjoy reality TV, and when we first did 1984 we had a post-show discussion with "Nasty" Nick from the show - he basically played Big Brother as if it was all a game."
Lyddiard staged 1984 for the generation that was born in that year: "They were beginning to vote in 2002 and had a real possibility of changing the direction of politics. So I was saying, 'Be aware of this book and of its message that power corrupts. We have to watch the politicians.' "Reuse content