Half-English, half-French - the play must not go on says Pinter English and French: ne'er the twain shall meet, says Pinter

The playwright (left) has scotched plans to stage a bilingual version of 'The Lover' in Toronto - with the erotic scenes in English, Vanessa Thorpe reports
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The Cast is primed, the lines are learned. The promotional material is out, the tickets sold. In fact everyone involved, from the producers of the play to the promoters running the Toronto drama festival, is confidently looking forward to a theatrical first - a startling new, bilingual production of an acknowledged modern masterpiece.

Then, without warning, during the final week of rehearsals for a Canadian staging of The Lover, Harold Pinter's unnerving 1962 study of sexual mores and domestic power games, word comes from England. The author says the play must not go on.

"It felt like we had been hit by a truck," said the play's co-producer and co-star Normand Bissonnette. "It was devastating, especially as I believed the bilingual presentation suited both the play and our festival audience so wonderfully."

The piece, which notoriously opens as Richard, a surburban commuter, casually asks his wife one morning, "Is your lover coming today?", was first performed on British television in 1963. An approved French translation by Eric Kahane was performed on stage in Paris in 1965.

The bilingual version would have had a particular resonance for a Canadian audience, used to the continuing conflict between their nation's French- and English-speaking communities, and the way in which people slip in and out of the two worlds. In a Toronto theatre, the tension between the two languages would be a metaphor for the friction between the two characters.

But last week Pinter's British agents were adamant. The Canadian production, they said, could only go ahead in either English or French and on no account in a combination of the two. So the company, working under the acclaimed Canadian director Diana Le-Blanc, decided to switch to French and quickly re-learned their lines.

Despite hopes that he might yet change his mind, the playwright, speaking in London yesterday, seemed unlikely to relent. "I don't take this production seriously," he said. "They may have wanted to produce a bilingual version, but I don't think I am being unfair. The Lover is still my play."

In typically frank Pinteresque vocabulary the play reveals the secret fantasy life of the apparently respectable central couple. They are, it emerges, conducting an uninhibited clandestine affair with each other during the daytime. On the husband's return in the evening, however, they revert to their former roles. Deadpan, the husband enquires whether his wife has had a good day and whether she had time to show her lover the hollyhocks in the garden.

British readers might assume that it was the fantasy figures who were to have switched to French dialogue, but in fact Bissonnette had planned to conduct the erotic encounters in English.

"I am a French Canadian living in English Canada and for us English represents the fantasy, erotic self because it is French which comes with all the restrictive social taboos," he said.

"For us, English is the language of TV and films so that, although a lot of people think that English is a very straight language, for us it is the other way around. There would have been the added treat too of using English for the erotic parts."

Bissonnette admits that he made a mistake in not chasing up permission for the production from Pinter's agents, but, he says, he had not predicted any difficulties since he had written to them in plenty of time and was to have used the original Kahane translation.

"It is as good as a translation gets," he said. "I have taken this bilingual project to my heart and would like to speak to Mr Pinter. The quality of his writing is not matched by many playwrights. It is an absolutely brilliant play: terribly British but universal too, with an insight into the struggle over the balance of power within a relationship and the inevitable sexual power struggle."