In Sicily, they believe that upping the cultural temperature is one way of keeping the Mafia at bay and the tourists at play. The latest arts festival in Palermo has a high British content, including contributions from Peter Greenaway, Richard Long and Harold Pinter. John Francis Lane saw the Italian production of Pinter's `Ashes to Ashes', directed by the author with, perhaps, an unintended irony.

The Sicilian city of Palermo has been having something of a cultural Renaissance in recent times. The much-loved but equally much-hated mayor, Leoluca Orlando (elected on an anti-Mafia ticket four years ago and up for re-election at the end of this month), believes that culture is one way of fighting the Mafia which, among other crimes, is blamed for frightening citizens and visitors away from the city's theatres and museums.

The latest example of Palermo's cultural re-birth has been a festival dedicated to the Novecento (the 20th Century) which surprisingly (or not, Mr Blair?) opened and closed with major British theatrical offerings, while also hosting a massive new installation of twin stone and mud circles by Richard Long. The opener was Peter Greenaway, giving performances at the city's recently re-opened and stunningly beautiful opera house, the Teatro Massimo, of his bizarre operatic happening 100 Objects to Represent the World (premiered at Salzburg in the summer).

The closing event, at the Teatro Biondo, was Harold Pinter directing (in Italian, of course - a language he doesn't speak) his 1996 two-hander Ashes to Ashes, which, after Palermo, was due to tour to Turin and other Italian cities.

Pinter had been to Palermo only once before, in 1980, to pick up a rather handsome money prize, the Premio Pirandello, on which occasion I distinctly remember him saying that, grateful as he was for the generous birthday present (he had just turned 50 the month he and Lady Antonia came to Palermo), he couldn't understand why the jury had judged his work as worthy of the award since he felt his plays were "at the other end of the telescope" from those of Pirandello himself.

His return to Palermo, one suspects, was motivated less by a desire for further comparison with Sicily's Nobel prize-winning dramatist than by a long-held ambition to show the Italians how he thinks his plays ought to be done. Many of us who live in Italy remember the angry reaction Pinter displayed to a production of Old Times, directed by Luchino Visconti in Rome in 1974, which the British dramatist considered a travesty of his work. He succeeded in getting the production taken off.

He has every reason to pat himself on the back today, not only for the acclaim he has received from audiences and critics in Palermo, but also because the actress playing Rebecca in this Italian premiere of Ashes to Ashes is none other than Adriana Asti, the very same actress who, under Visconti's direction back in 1974, had rendered so controversially explicit the lesbian undercurrents in Old Times that Pinter's original text left as mere nuances.

Asti, who is remembered in particular for her role in Bertolucci's early film Prima della rivoluzione, now lives in Paris, where she has done Goldoni in French, and seems to enjoy being directed by non-Italians (I once saw her in a Strindberg play in Turin, directed by Susan Sontag).

Ashes to Ashes (Ceneri alle ceneri), excellently translated by Alessandra Serra, who was at Pinter's side as interpreter and assistant throughout the rehearsals (first in London and then in Palermo), has been well received, even if a 60-minute play seems like poor value at today's theatre prices. Certainly there is much more to Ashes - a play that "puts our whole century into one hour of theatre," as the critic of the Communist Il Manifesto put it - than to Pinter's earlier The Room, which Eduardo de Filippo's son Luca has been playing at Rome's Teatro Eliseo in recent weeks.

Asti's co-star is the wonderful Polish stage and film actor Jerzy Stuhr. If his accent is at first a bit disconcerting, it later gains added resonances in the context of the ambiguities the play sets up. Is the husband one and the same with the lover who apparently roughed the woman up in some mysterious past that may have been played out in a concentration camp? I didn't see Pinter's Royal Court staging last year (with Stephen Rea and Lindsay Duncan) but the English context probably made it even more enigmatic. In Palermo, there wasn't much inglese about it, even in the set. It seems that Pinter didn't approve of the original design. The one we saw, along with the costumes, was credited to one Gomez, of whom nobody has heard. The original designer had apparently over-loaded it with naturalistic detail. What we saw on the stage was a simple, anonymous cut-out of a drawing-room with no lived-in look about it.

Pinter's direction achieved the alienating effect that is presumably what he wants and that I haven't found in the many Italian productions of Pinter I've seen over the years, even if a recent staging of The Hothouse at Rome's Teatro Quirino, starring and directed by Carlo Cecchi, was great fun. In Ashes, the acting by Asti and Stuhr was impressive. They did seem to be speaking to one another instead of just declaiming lines, which is often the case on Italian stages.

Ironically, though, while giving credit to Pinter for having, to a degree, vindicated the Visconti "outrage", wasn't he running the risk of committing the same kind of anti-Pinteresque offence - ie rendering explicit the implicit - in allowing the husband to speak with an accent that could quite easily be that of the concentration camp bully about whom Rebecca reminisces so fondly? Where, might one ask, have all your nuances gone, Harold?