Adrian Hamilton: Why do we feel we must turn Chekhov into Noel Coward?

There's a problem in 'versions' rather than translations of foreign plays

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No one can say that the British are not international in their theatrical outlook. The place is bursting with foreign plays – from Jean Racine (Phèdre) through Henrik Ibsen (A Doll's House) and Anton Chekhov (The Cherry Orchard) to the contemporary playwrights showcased at London's Gate, and other fringe theatres.

It is not always so. There have been times when London plodded on as if the rest of the world did not exist and the only foreign works worth staging were American musicals. One of the wonderful things at the moment is how the classics of European theatre have come back into fashion. Even Friedrich Schiller has got a look in with his rarely performed Wallenstein.

Just why this is, why quite so many of Shakespeare's works should be playing at the same time and why Ibsen in particular has reasserted his role in the repertory, is worth a study in itself. It must be something to do with our troubled times, and the sense of uncertainty about the future, which makes us return to the "big authors" who also lived in periods when the tectonic plates were shifting and tried to say something about the ruthlessness of politics, the greed of business and the strains of social change. A Doll's House has everything to say about women's role as Wallenstein does about war and the exhaustion of it.

The worrying thing about this modern wave, however, is that almost all the classics now being performed are, in that dreaded word, a "version." They are not direct translations, but one step further removed as directors and authors take the literal translation and then convert it into something more approachable and – another dreaded word – "relevant".

Now, even with Shakespeare and the British classics, there is a modern temptation to update. At its worst it has resulted in an endless reduction of works to long leather coats and monstrous excisions to the text. At its best, in the hands of directors such as Michael Grandage and Sam Mendes, it can completely refresh a text, cast it in a new and more immediate light than fusty traditions would admit.

It is not the updating in production that concerns me. It is the re-interpretation that comes with producing "versions" rather than translations, the interpolation of another mind that implicitly thinks the original needs revising for a British audience.

Take Racine's Phèdre, playing at the National. The verse version on this occasion is by no less a poet than Ted Hughes, and brilliant it is in its own right. But in rewriting the script Hughes instinctively rebalances it towards the sexual passion and the incident suitable to a modern sensibility.

As anyone who saw Cheek by Jowl's recent French-language version of Racine's Andromaque knows – and the company is not one to baulk at modernising the setting – the power of the great French playwright lies in the classical formality of his language. It works through the gathering force of language to portray the human condition in general, not the modern preference for expressing character in a way that the audience can empathise with.

So too Tom Stoppard's version of that staple of the theatre, Chekhov's Cherry Orchard. Stoppard is a marvellously intelligent and supple comic writer but what he does with this play is almost unconsciously turn the Russian writer into Noel Coward. Chekhov's comedy, beloved though it is by British audiences, is actually quite difficult to bring off in this country. As the productions by the Moscow and St Petersburg theatres have shown when they have come over, Chekhov is much more farcical, manic even, than the English way of dealing with him would suggest. Stoppard drains this by downplaying the excessive in favour of the witty.

Even worse has befallen poor Ibsen, virtually all of whose plays have been on display in "new versions" in the last few months. The great Norwegian portrayer of social constraint and its effect on the individual, and the battle of wills between one or the other, has been metamorphosed into his apprentice, GB Shaw; a provocateur of bourgeois convention, a tragedian of the oppressed hero or heroine. That suits the English way of looking at things and the British way of playing parts. But Ibsen is not nearly as one-sided as that. His main characters are deeply flawed, in some ways quite dislikable, and his society much less wrong in all its parts.

This is more than a question of downgrading the translator's role. A "version" is, at heart, a form of colonialism, an act of ownership over a foreign literature. It says that the original is not quite good enough for us. It needs improving to be acceptable to a British audience. The sadness is that we have such good translators in this country. Why don't we use them?

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