One of the flagship productions of Nicholas Hytner's first season as the director of the National Theatre, Tales From the Vienna Woods is directed by Richard Jones and is in a new translation by David Harrower. Odon von Horvath's satirical epic was written in 1930, and first performed in 1931 as the Nazi party was approaching power. Against the backdrop of the Vienna Woods, a community concerns itself with love affairs, petty squabbles, jealousies and personal tragedy, while society at large tumbles towards fascism.
"With this kind of work you get a real insight into how other playwrights respond to their times," says Harrower, who is also the author of the plays Knives And Hens, Kill The Old Torture Their Young and Presence. "In his exploration of hypocrisy and bigotry, Horvath is trying to stick a knife into the smug gentility of Austrians. You have the rumblings of a totalitarian dictatorship alive in this text."
It is Harrower's job to render Horvath's play into an actor-friendly text for today's stage. "I do a number on it," explains Harrower, whose other adaptations have included Chek-hov's Ivanov at the Cottesloe, Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author and Buchner's Woyzeck. "A literal translation can be clunky," he says. "I get as close as I possibly can to the original intentions of the author, but I will then use turns of phrase that lift the text. One phrase in the literal translation says: 'She ran away with a good-for-nothing.' My new version reads: 'She ran off with a complete waste of space.'" Harrower points out that, as the play hasn't been seen on the professional stage in Britain since 1971, "Horvath is a new writer for many people, and I need to bring the audience in."
It's not all about words. Jones, who previously directed Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme at the National Theatre, is renowned for his opera productions, including Wagner's Ring at the Royal Opera House, and is noted for his visual flair. Harrower approves: "Because the show is staged on the Olivier stage, which is so big, this production is visually shiny and beautiful."
Frances Barber plays Valerie, a cynical and attractive single woman with a taste for younger men. She returns to the National Theatre, where she was last seen in The Night of the Iguana. Nicola Walker plays Marianne, an innocent, while Joe Duttine, is Alfred, the lover of both leading ladies. Karl Johnson plays Abracadabra, Marianne's father.
Such was the furore caused by the play's first outing that Horvath's work was banned in Germany and he was forced to flee abroad, only to meet with a tragically absurd end. In Paris to meet a film producer, Horvath spent the afternoon watching Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs. Leaving the cinema, he sheltered from a thunderstorm under a tree on the Champs Elysées. A bolt of lighting hit the tree and killed him. Horvath had fled Adolf Hitler only to succumb to Walt Disney.
'Tales From the Vienna Woods', Olivier auditorium, NT, (020-7452 3000; www.nationaltheatre.org.uk) to 19 NovemberReuse content