A Miser too generous with jokes

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The Independent Online
EVERYBODY knows that poetry is what gets lost in trans-lation. What all three of this week's plays remind you, though, is that what gets lost can be rather less interesting than what's been added along the way.

In Moliere's The Miser, for instance, you usually learn that Valere, the miser Harpagon's trusted retainer, has won the love of Harpagon's daughter Elise by saving her from drowning. In Ranjit Bolt's new translation, though, he has dragged her from a snowdrift. It's a tiny change, and you might argue that it's unnecessary; but in the context of Nicholas Broadhurst's production at Chichester, it emphasises neatly the chilliness of Harpagon's world: the play opens with a flurry of snowflakes; at the edges of the set, withered twigs sprout from frost-covered urns; and there's constant by-play with an electric fire (Harpagon keeps switching it off, everyone else keeps switching it back on).

It's a subtle, grim touch in a production that's otherwise fairly cheese- paring where subtlety and grimness are concerned. You can't fault Broadhurst's sense of the play's overall comic impetus, but you could gripe at the tiresome amount of extraneous business he throws in: a stupid crash-helmet joke, a stupid electrocution joke, a stupid foot-through-the-stairs joke, a stupid shotgun-accidentally-fired-at-the-ceiling joke.

This isn't Ranjit Bolt's best work, either. The dialogue often has a stilted, phrase-book feel; it's full of familiar expressions - "worked like a charm", "over the moon", "till the cows come home" - but overall sounds less like colloquial English than a compilation of English colloquialisms. There are some clumsy topical references; and one or two odd misfires (Harpagon's prospective bride on first seeing him comes out with the incongruously laddish exclamation: "What a dog!").

You can overlook these jars, though, for the sake of Ian Richardson's Harpagon, a fine portrait of egomaniac self-delusion and frantic greed with bursts of undiluted brilliance. When Valere is suspected of having stolen his beloved cashbox, Elise intercedes gently, explaining that this is the man who saved her life; and Richardson holds a long moment of seemingly crushed stillness, before snarling, slowly and distinctly, as if to a complete idiot: "So sodding what?" It's a rare glimpse of just how monstrous a creature this is, and a reminder that Moliere was writing something a little more complicated than a Tuesday-night sitcom.

A lack of seriousness is never going to be a problem with The Robbers. Schiller's youthful tragedy, written when he was 19, takes itself so seriously that it can never be entirely plausible. For one thing, the hero, Karl, leader of a band of students turned brigands in the Bavarian forests, is an absurdly idealised figure - you have to take it as read from the start that he's universally admired and loved, but the play gives you precious few clues as to why this should be. It's a difficulty that Lindsay Posner's stylish production at the Gate doesn't quite overcome. Phil McKee brings a necessary sense of integrity to the part, but his performance is a little too much on one teeth-clenching note - you can't imagine somebody who takes himself this seriously leading the kind of wastrel, grant-blowing existence that Karl is supposed to have done. Nor is his final realisation that his life of rebellion has made him a monster wholly persuasive - he's already so agonised that he's got nowhere else to go.

Given the limitations of the original, this is a surprisingly gripping three hours. Karl's extreme earnestness finds a nice counter-balance in Ian Hughes's Franz, the evil brother who's plotting to disinherit him and steal his beloved Amalia. Hughes adds a delightful leavening of malicious humour; and Carol Starks, as Amalia, is impressively stately and passionate, making a thankless, cardboard role into something graceful and almost convincing.

They're helped by Jo Parker's spare wooden set and Simon Korda's subdued lighting; and by Robert David MacDonald's gritty, mercifully unpoetic translation. What's added in this translation is a layer of literary allusion that brings out the echoes of other texts - Lear, in particular (at one point Franz actually says, "Nothing will come of nothing"). The effect is to suspend the whole play inside quotation marks, to remind you that this is theatre; and by holding the oddities of plot and motivation at a slight remove, to help you understand more directly the extremes of emotion that drive the play. This won't be everybody's cup of tea; but you'd be hard pushed to find a production that makes the Romantic, Sturm und Drang sensibility more accessible and sympathetic to a 20th-century audience.

The final instance this week of what can be added in translation is Nigel Williams's translation from page to stage of Lord of the Flies. In a sense, this is home ground for Williams - his 1977 stage debut, Class Enemy, about a group of alienated, aimlessly vicious youths in an inner-city comprehensive, could be read as an urban rewrite of Golding's story; and his novels of suburban homicide touch on the same theme of dark, savage emotions lurking underneath a veneer of civilisation. Indeed, it could quite easily be literally true of the middle-class schoolboys here that they came from SW19.

Sitting in front of the elegant bleached wood and white sand of Chris Dyer's set at the Other Place, you soon realise that in Williams's case practice hasn't made perfect. What's been added in this translation is a lot of superfluous detail - the boys start playing status games about which school they went to (the cast-list even divides them up according to fictional school), and arguing about which is better at rugby. The point seems to be, not that there's a beast inside every child, but that there's a beast inside every rugby-playing English public schoolboy; and while you wouldn't argue with that line of thinking, it's a far narrower, weaker point than Golding made. And it dissipates much of the tension the drama ought to have.

There are other peculiar touches: Ralph (Daniel Brocklebank) is written as far more thoughtful, far weaker than in the book; Jack (an impressive Marc Elliot) seems to be a hard man of the right, obsessed with proper pronunciation and the need to devote resources to weapons. Elijah Moshinsky's production looks beautiful, and he's got some marvellous performances from his schoolboy cast; you'd love to see them with a better script. As it stands, it's a frustrating affair.

'Miser': Chichester, 01243 781312. 'Robbers': Gate, 0171 229 0706. 'Lord of the Flies': Stratford Other Place, 01789 295623.