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

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste