Michel Houellebecq vs Calixto Bieito

Spain's most notorious theatre director meets France's most controversial writer in one of the red-hot tips of this year's Festival. Lynne Walker reports
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The Independent Culture

It seems like a marriage made in heaven. On the one hand, there's the French novelist Michel Houellebecq, whose third novel, Platform, produced a scandale littéraire, attracted an action against the author accusing him of inciting racial hatred, and aroused the ire of those who found it difficult to accept his detailed sex scenes as anything other than pornographic.

On the other, there's the Catalan director Calixto Bieito, whose notoriously over-imaginative productions frequently veer towards the sensational, the depraved and the plain silly. So, in offering to adapt and translate Platform as a special parting gift for Brian McMaster as he bows out of running the Edinburgh Festival, is Bieito planning his most inflammatory show yet?

"I'm not interested in provocation. I keep saying that, but there are some people who don't want to believe me," declares Bieito, a touch disingenuously. "Michel's Platform is firstly about love, and then about sex. It is about people who are in love in a violent society. I don't think anyone will be shocked or upset.

"My take will be very different from the novel, and much more in the mind. I don't think it will be full of scenes of a violent or sexual nature but more a mental thing, focusing on the expectation we have of love. Brian recognised immediately that it was 'the perfect material' on which I would enjoy basing a show. I don't know what kind of show, actually."

At first, I wonder if he's having me on. After all, this is the director whose sensationally visceral productions attract capacity audiences and many column inches. An image sticks in my mind of Hasko Baumann's documentary of a meeting between the slightly shifty-looking, anorak-clad Houellebecq and the irrepressible Bieito. At one point in this short, uneventful film, Into the Night with..., an evening-suited man is seen running from a theatre performance, retching into the night.

Bieito really rates Platform as a story and not just because you can read it "in a couple of hours". The book tells of a disillusioned young bachelor and civil servant, Michel, who seeks sexual and personal fulfilment in the fleshpots of Bangkok. When he meets Valerie, a younger woman involved in the travel industry, he finds love as well as satisfaction for his sexual cravings. Together, they establish a hedonistic sex resort for tourists.

Michel may be an enigma - "possibly for a woman", laughs Bieito - but he himself readily admits to identifying with him - though not totally, he hastens to add. "Michel is remarkable for his mediocrity, and for his cheap fantasies. I love the character."

On the very first of these holidays in Thailand, in which casual sex is openly tossed into the package, Islamic terrorists bomb a hotel. This plunges Michel into despair far greater than anything he'd ever experienced. The ending is incendiary "in a Shakespearian way", according to Bieito, who promised something suitably explosive, though not an explosion. "The shattering of Michel's dreams is so strong, so lyrical, that nothing except the words themselves could do justice to the events that take place," he says.

The stage version may take its theatrical form from Bieito but every word will be Houellebecq's, drawing on several of the writer's published poems as well as the novel. Platform makes several allusions to music, but, though Bieito may retain something of Bob Dylan's influence, he's not planning on including any tracks from Houellebecq's own album, Présence Humaine. It's a co-production, performed in Edinburgh in Bieito's own Spanish translation with English surtitles and, after its airing at Barcelona's Companyia Teatre Romea, it will tour extensively.

Interestingly, Bieito and Houellebecq share certain similarities. Both have been described as naive and uncompromising, as "damaging themselves with their honesty", and Houellebecq has been pigeon-holed as "very bright, fascinated by some things, bored by others, and enjoys playing with his audience", a categorisation that could equally well apply to Bieito. No one can agree on what precisely it is that Houellebecq or Bieito means or doesn't mean.

What does Houellebecq think about Bieito's somewhat relaxed approach to adapting Platform? "I don't know if he's that interested," replies Bieito. "I've met him several times but putting something on the stage is a completely different process from writing. He's not offered any advice and I don't know if he'll even come to see it, although I'd like him to. But he doesn't enjoy being with people and I respect that."

Part of the action of the novel is set in exotic locations, while some of it involves sex in public, and graphic descriptions of S&M. The production will surely rely on video or film footage, then? "Not really," says Bieito. "It's not packed with images of Thailand or massage parlours. I am not interested in the BarBar S&M club with its torture chambers," he claims, a touch defiantly. At the moment, they are apparently not even featured in the play and neither is the video exhibition following the fate of bodies donated to medical science. At the exhibition opening, Houellebecq has medical students mingling with the punters flashing grotesque body parts among the unsuspecting viewers. But Bieito is insistent he won't be playing that trick in his none-too-literal interpretation of Platform. "It's much more an insight into Michel's feelings, especially after the explosion."

So it all takes place in an anonymous international hotel with a karaoke piano bar, a temporary stopping place that only exacerbates the loneliness of the long-distance traveller thinking about sex all the time. "The conversations between the characters are recognisable from the chat you overhear between men everywhere," Bieito says. "That's what is so good about the novel - the sincerity of the text. It may not be appealing but it is honest."

He glosses over Houellebecq's derogatory and damaging comments about the Islamic religion that the author puts into the mouth of Michel. "I want to talk about love," says Bieito firmly. "Some people may think it is a novel against Islam, but I don't, and my show will not be about that."

When he continues talking about Michel, I'm not sure if he means the author or the character. Perhaps they're interchangeable. "I also happen to think that Michel's fantasy about women is familiar to many men. I think it's quite nice, actually, and I don't think he's treating women badly. I think he's treating himself badly in a self-destructive and cynical kind of way."

If, as has been claimed, it's Houellebecq's stated intention to describe the world as it is, with all the suffering of humans and their aspirations and reality, is that what attracted Bieito? "Yes, a lot," he replies quickly. "I'm not trying to adapt Platform, you know. What I have done is make a hyperrealistic poem, recreating the characters and using only some parts of the novel in a theatrical, Ibsen-esque way." His seven-strong cast - "not young but middle-aged and older," he says wryly - is led by the well-known Spanish actor Juan Echanove in the role of Michel.

So will those who have read Platform be able to identify the novel from the play? "They must know that they have to come to see a theatre piece," answers Bieito. "But they will recognise the role of Michel. But realising the part of Valerie is very difficult because every man will have his own image of her fixed in his mind's eye. She won't please everybody because how could I possibly create the loving, sexual goddess of every man's dreams?"

'Platform', Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, 30 August to 2 September; Calixto Bieito will talk about his staging of the novel on 31 August at 5pm in the Hawthornden Lecture Theatre, Edinburgh; for tickets to either event, call 0131-473 2000

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