Theatre: Speaking in tongues

Can theatre transcend the language barrier? Director Declan Donnellan thinks so, and has the awards to prove it.

Declan Donnellan's start was with the Finnish. Which does not mean that in his beginning was his end. Rather the reverse. Let me explain. This gifted director, former associate of the National Theatre, co-founder of the globetrotting - and temporarily suspended - Cheek by Jowl company, has just picked up two gongs for productions that demonstrated flair for working with foreign casts in a foreign language.

The Village Voice in New York has honoured his staging of Corneille's Le Cid, which started life at the Avignon Festival and uses Francophone actors. And he recently became the first non-Russian to win the prestigious Golden Mask award, at the Moscow Festival of that name, for his beautiful production with the Maly Theatre of St Petersburg of The Winter's Tale. This staging - the first time the Maly has tackled Shakespeare or welcomed an English director into its midst - touches down at the Brighton Festival this week on its nationwide tour.

It was in Finland, though, well over a decade ago, that Donnellan embarked on the strange, challenging adventure of what could be described as "directing in tongues". His recent double-headed triumph prompts a wider consideration of the heightened risks and rewards of this activity - all the way from the casting and the working conditions to the subtleties of verbal emphasis. It was in connection with the latter that Finland, where Donnellan directed Macbeth and Philoctetes, cropped up in our conversation. How, I wanted to know, can a director who doesn't speak the actors' language be sure that they are always laying the stress in a way that releases the fullest meaning from the lines?

Donnellan began by proclaiming that "I never work through stress"; then, realising the alternative meaning, pulled himself up and laughed: "Well, of course, I'm always having to work through stress, but never with an actor. I'd never impose a line reading. That would be to cure the symptom rather than the cause, which is not being really present in the role." The text, he claims, isn't as important as the intention behind it. Take care of that and the emphases will find their natural place. There are times, though, he revealed, when you become aware that the foreign translation is standing in the way of this process. During rehearsals of the Finnish version of Macbeth, the emotion underlying the famous "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" speech failed to come right, until Donnellan noticed that the translator had left out one of those crucial "ands". "`But it's bad Finnish to repeat them like that,' they said, and I had to point out that Shakespeare sometimes wrote `bad' English, and always for good dramatic reasons."

So what the audience eventually heard - "Huommena ya huommena ya huommena" - did have its full complement of connectives.

These sentiments about the status of verbal language are echoed by the producer Thelma Holt, the doyenne of such international teamings, who has recently been casting English actors for the King Lear (starring Nigel Hawthorne) that the Japanese master Yukio Ninagawa will direct this autumn. When she declares that "language can be a great barrier", the barrier she is referring to, ironically enough, is that between people who speak a common tongue.

One of the trickier aspects of casting for a Ninagawa production, she admits, is that you need people who are already proficient first speakers and this, for institutional reasons, is increasingly difficult. But it's revealing, she maintains, that the interpreter who sat in on the auditions for Lear declared herself unnecessary. Like a cat that, when it loses one of its senses, cultivates the others more intensely in compensation, Ninagawa has developed uncanny powers of intuition.

Experience suggests, I would argue, that the hardest thing to pull off in these ventures is social comedy requiring the establishment of a world of subtle shared signals and codes. An object lesson in how not to work with a foreign cast was furnished in this country by the talented Romanian director, Alexandru Darie, when he panicked and transformed the carefully inflected society of Messina of Much Ado About Nothing into a bewildering multicultural Babel. If an Eskimo had suddenly wandered on and, to the strains of a sitar, started to shake a shillelagh, you wouldn't have been unduly surprised.

At the opposite end of the scale, a difference of nationality between director and cast can create the ideal chemistry for blasting away the plaque of preconception that tends to build up on a classic. One of the highlights of last year's Edinburgh Festival was Calixto Bieito's superb staging of Calderon's Golden Age masterpiece Life is a Dream, which will be remounted in September at the Barbican as part of BITE. Bieito, a Catalan, thinks that it was only by working with a British cast, who came with no fixed assumptions, that he was able to get away from the tradition of over-intellectualism that afflicts Spanish approaches to this great text. With its princely hero who, to foil a dire prophecy, has been kept in prison since birth in a dark tower and is then hauled back and forth and subjected to conflicting reports about his true identity, the play is intensely preoccupied with questions of nature and nurture, dream and reality, power and responsibility.

But it is wrong, the director argues, to fall in with a performance practice that presents the prince as a Hamlet-like philosopher. Accordingly, in his dark vision of the play, the Scottish actor George Anton played him, with a thrilling uncensored immediacy, as a cross between a highly sexed animal and a marvelling, innocent child.

Of course, British critics who, in such circumstances, often become experts for the day on another country's drama, raised pedantic objections. "Calderon's drama, written to be performed in daylight, does not deserve to be robbed of colour and context in this way," complained one, neglecting to remember that Hamlet was also written to be performed in daylight. However, this paradoxical activity, whereby it can take a foreign director or cast to reveal a classic properly to the nation from which it sprang, is a process that can't be achieved overnight.

Pyotr Semak, the masterly Leontes in Donnellan's Russian Winter's Tale, talks of how the paths of the Maly Theatre and Cheek By Jowl often crossed on the international circuit, enabling them to get to know one another well in the four years it took to negotiate the project, with the aid of the British Council. Having already attended Donnellan's workshops in various parts of the world, Semak says that "When I went into the rehearsal room, I knew what to expect".

Things get far more complicated when a director takes on a project that involves working simultaneously or in quick sequence on two productions of the same piece, one with a foreign, the other with an English cast. This is about to occur with knobs on (so to speak), this summer in a venture commissioned by the Edinburgh Festival. New plays by the Scottish playwright David Greig and the Catalan dramatist Lluisa Cunille will be directed by, respectively, Philip Howard and Xavier Alberti.

Here's the twist, though. Each director will stage two companion productions of the assigned play, one with a cast from Barcelona, the other with a cast from Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre. In Howard's case, the challenge makes three-dimensional chess look a cinch. For as the switch-round schedule has fallen out, he will be directing the world premiere of Greig's The Speculator - a post-modern play set in France about John Law, the 18th- century Scot who invented paper money and inflation - in its Catalan version.

Given that the piece includes such features as a Scottish lord on the Grand Tour, re-imagined as a hitchhiker who speaks in a parody of Trainspotting English, this should be a stretching experience. What, I wonder, is the Catalan for "the best of British luck?"

The Maly Theatre's production of `The Winter's Tale' is at the Brighton Festival (01273 328488) to Sat and then tours to Plymouth, Sheffield, Hammersmith and Newcastle. The Maly's `Platonov' is at The Barbican, London EC2 (0171-638 8891) 9-13 Jun. All performances are surtitled

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