The Week in Arts: Lost in translation... foreign classics in London

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The Independent Online

Suddenly the London theatre is awash with foreign classics. Vanessa Redgrave has just opened in Hecuba only a few months after the Donmar did the same Euripides tragedy. Ibsen's Hedda Gabler is playing to packed houses at the Almeida. Strindberg's A Dream Play is at the National and his Easter is at Riverside Studios. Schiller's Don Carlos is continuing its run with Derek Jacobi. And the National is doing Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba while the RSC has just finished its London season of Spanish plays from the Golden Age.

Suddenly the London theatre is awash with foreign classics. Vanessa Redgrave has just opened in Hecuba only a few months after the Donmar did the same Euripides tragedy. Ibsen's Hedda Gabler is playing to packed houses at the Almeida. Strindberg's A Dream Play is at the National and his Easter is at Riverside Studios. Schiller's Don Carlos is continuing its run with Derek Jacobi. And the National is doing Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba while the RSC has just finished its London season of Spanish plays from the Golden Age.

One can only welcome it all after years in which it seemed the National and other theatres were interested in foreign playwrights only if they were from America or Ireland and wrote in English. And it's certainly adding some high-octane performances to the London stage. Say what you like about Ibsen or Strindberg, or for that matter Schiller and Lorca, but they knew how to write big parts, especially for women.

The warning signal comes from the fact that nearly all these performances are described as "adaptations" or even "versions" of the original. Translating classic foreign texts always poses a problem, especially if you try to make them contemporary. Even Mike Paulton's adaptation of Don Carlos had the audience tittering at quite the wrong moments when I was there. Schiller, like Lorca and Euripides, wrote a particularly heightened form of rhythmic language. Modernising them can all too easily trivialise them, the more so with Strindberg who always teeters dangerously close to the absurd.

But it's less that which worries me than the increasing tendency of directors and adaptors to take literal translations from languages they don't know and then turn them into what they think is an effective play for the modern audience. It can work in terms of effect but it also takes the play a good stage further from the author's intentions. Caryl Churchill's new version of Strindberg's A Dream Play has only the remotest connection with the original, while Richard Eyre's Hedda Gabler anglicises Hedda into a sort of wayward Mitford girl whose ferocious desire to turn Loevborg into her vision of a free man and her inability to break out of convention are simply unbelievable.

Is this really the only way to make these authors relevant to today's audience? It was noticeable that, of the three plays in the RSC Spanish season, the most successful was the one that kept closest to the original: David Johnston's translation of Lope de Vega's The Dog in the Manger. Of the current promotion of Strindberg's work, the most effective has been BBC Radio 3's broadcast of two chamber plays, Pelican and Playing with Fire, last month. It was amazing how fresh, as well as effective, they sounded in translations that aimed to keep close to the original.

It's not just that British adaptors have a tendency to make plays into television soaps - although that is often the case. It is that there is something intrinsically patronising about the way in which they feel the work of dramatists writing a foreign language need "interpretation" as well as "translation" before their work can be set before a British audience. At bottom it's a form of cultural imperialism.

Great expectations dashed ...

Operagoers have, I suspect, become so used to the tantrums, illnesses and absences of divas that they're just resigned to it. They shouldn't be. On a recent trip to ENO's la Clemenza di Tito, with much-lauded performances by Sarah Connolly (pictured) and her co-star, Paul Nilon, the audience was informed in the most perfunctory fashion that neither Connolly nor Nilon was able to sing but that they were "pleased" to announce that replacements had been found. The same happened with Bryn Terfel's final performances of Wotan at Covent Garden.

Well, ENO may have been "pleased" but judging by the grumbling around me, the audience wasn't. The reason star singers can demand such exorbitant fees is that many punters pay specially to hear them. Perhaps they shouldn't, realising the total performance is the thing. But they do and, as long as this is so, opera houses should offer refunds or alternative tickets without being asked by enraged clients.

¿ Mention the RSC's Spanish Golden Age season brings up the question of the outrageous prices being charged for programmes. The RSC this time chose to sell large format programmes for each play (unlike the single one for all its recent Roman season), charging £3.50 each and all of them including the same general essay.

But then what do you make of the National Gallery's catalogue of its outstanding Caravaggio exhibition? Sixteen superb paintings tailor made for a slim booklet reproducing all. Instead there is a full academic exercise covering a host of paintings which aren't in the exhibition and costing £25. It's just exploitation of the customers.

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