Why are theatre directors messing with the classics?

Adrian Hamilton investigates the move towards melodrama

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The Independent Culture

There are no more dreaded words in the English theatre today than "in a version by". Whether it's Ibsen's Ghosts, Euripides' Medea or Sophocles' Electra, nothing will do but that the international giants of the stage be taken by an English writer and refashioned for the English audience in their own words.

No one should doubt the theatricality of these "versions". Greek tragedians, as indeed Ibsen, created great parts for female actors and this is what the British directors have seized on with such fervour today. Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra, Helen McCrory as Medea and Lesley Manville as Ibsen's Mrs Alving have all been successively hailed as the new divas of drama for their anguished performances of tortured, wracked women.

Just as we perform Chekhov as the supreme English ironist, rather than the caustic writer of near farces, which is the way the Russians do, so our directors and dramatists rework the classics as studies in angst and high emotion, women on the edge not just of a nervous breakdown but of infanticidal self-destruction.

Only that is not what these dramas are actually about, or not as their authors intended. The great classical dramatists didn't set out to present psychiatric studies of individuals and their torments. They wrote about the human condition through the dilemmas and fates of individuals. The same goes for Henrik Ibsen. A would-be poet himself, he wanted to express what he saw as the societal truth of his times.

Sir Richard Eyre's reworking of Ghosts, and his earlier Hedda Gabler, at the Almeida, are finely crafted works of domestic drama in which events speed their way to a horrifying conclusion, impelled by revelations which strip their heroines of all illusion. It's Chekhov on speed, even to the point of climaxing the play with Mrs Alving administering the medicines with which to aid her son's death.

But Ibsen didn't write that. He left his heroine gripped by indecision whether to carry out her son's desire to die or to refuse such an unnatural maternal act. Sir Richard's version makes for a more melodramatic finish; Ibsen's for a more troubling one. Which is how he saw his play, a very carefully modulated study through the dialogue of human evasion of how we are all made by our past and convention.

If you want to see the difference between the way that the British domesticate drama and other countries seize on the ideas behind a play, then the Barbican's current series of international productions of Ibsen should be a revelation. The Berlin Schaubühne ensemble's An Enemy of the People, the play he wrote in anger at the way Ghosts had been dismissed by the critics, is an interpretation full of the urgency that this angry assault on bourgeois conformity requires. Switching the time to now, it has all of Ibsen's weight and weariness with the society about him but also his sense of the human part within it. If the production stuttered in London it was in trying, in the middle, to involve the audience in the debate. It apparently worked in performances elsewhere but not here. The English don't go in for direct confrontation, let alone over ideas.

It gets worse with Greek tragedy. With a deeply affecting central performance, the National's Medea wrung every emotion out of the story of an abandoned woman who wreaks revenge by killing her own children and dragging their bodies into exile in an end reminiscent of Bertolt Brecht. Only Euripides is not Brecht and he didn't write Medea as a story of a wronged woman wrestling with her conflicting emotions. The Medea of Greek legend is a witch woman of terrifying force. The tragedy is one of anger and vengeance which cannot be constrained. At the end you feel not pity but horror and fear.

You don't have to do Greek tragedy on a bare stage and skimped costumes. The poet Caroline Bird's version of Euripides' Trojan Women at the Gate Theatre in 2012 was one of the most intense theatrical experiences I've ever had. Moving the scene to a maternity hospital, it worked because it remained true to Euripides' vision of captured women, turning in on themselves as they await their fate. But you can't do what Frank McGuinness, whose adaptation of Electra is now playing at the Old Vic, did in the opera of the Theban Plays and mess around with the order at will. At least you can't do it and still leave Sophocles on the credits.

Yukio Ninagawa, arguably the greatest theatre director of our times, who directed an electrifying Medea in Japanese, will only work with line-by-line translation. Presenting Shakespeare's Cymbeline recently the Barbican (he's back there with Hamlet next year), he apologised for changing a word in making a cedar into a pine for visual reasons. If only British directors would pay foreign dramatists the same respect when they turn them into English.

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