Philip Hensher: Supple's plays trip off the tongues

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Whenever the Edinburgh festival rolls round, one of the most curious phenomena is, surely, the taste for theatre in a foreign language. I can see the point of going to see Racine done by the historic French troupes, or Brecht by the Berliner Ensemble. There, the authentic style overrides the difficulties of craning your neck to read the subtitles and the obliviousness to nuance.

But Edinburgh rather specialises in the perverse pairing – often of plays which we know perfectly well, filtered through a totally alien theatrical tradition and rendered in a language of which most of us will speak not one word. This year, they gave us a Korean production of The Tempest, a one-man version of King Lear performed by Wu Hsing-Kuo, a Taiwanese actor from operatic traditions, and The Revenge of Prince Zi Dan as done by the Shanghai Peking Opera Troupe, which turned out to be Hamlet.

Never quite having got to the point of jadedness with Hamlet that I needed to see it stripped of a poetry I could understand and adorned with dragon's heads, I'd almost always given these events a miss. The grim memory of a Measure for Measure in Sicily, which sailed right over my head, made me realise how very much you rely on understanding what the characters are actually saying to each other.

To every principle there is an exception, and my personal exception is Mr Tim Supple. In 2006, the director staged an Indian version of A Midsummer Night's Dream which invited the actors to speak in their own languages. The resulting linguistic confusion covered half a dozen languages, including Tamil, Malayalam, Bengali, Hindi and Marathi. It worked beautifully. A Midsummer Night's Dream is a play of layers, confusion and separated societies – court, fairies, lovers and mechanicals communicated in their own tongues to expressive effect.

So when I heard Supple was bringing a version of the One Thousand and One Nights to Edinburgh, I dashed to get tickets. This time, he is using actors from the Middle East, and, more or less interchangeably, Arabic, English and French. In a long afternoon and evening, the rendering of the interwoven stories on a nearly bare stage never falters. Many foreign-language versions get by through their dependence on elaborate spectacle, but Supple's Nights, though lovely to watch, rests mostly on the power and lucidity of the storytelling. A slightly creaky subtitling screen and the barrier of a foreign language can't prevent that coming across.

What we have here is a production keenly aware of the drama and spectacle inherent in each language. The chief beauty of A Midsummer Night's Dream, I thought, was in its assigning of the southern Indian languages to the fairies – Tamil is a language in which it is almost impossible to master even a few simple phrases, with its bubbling effect. It really does have an almost otherworldly effect to the Western ear.

And the actors in the Nights seize the possibilities in the contrasts between the languages with great energy. Whenever they drop from Arabic into French, a little increase in courtliness is evident, and sometimes the merest suggestion of a lack of sincerity. The Arabic is enchantingly rich, earthy, direct, fierce and poetic – at least, that's the impression I got, though my Arabic is not good enough to follow more than the odd word and phrase. Evelyn Waugh said that no sound on earth was as disagreeable as two Arab women arguing; the joy of this One Thousand and One Nights is that it recognises and celebrates that potential for ugliness, as well as the seductive music deep in the language.

The One Thousand and One Nights, as Robert Irwin has demonstrated in a remarkable book, is a great mess of a text, full of accretions. It draws from all sorts of places and all sorts of traditions, and has often been regarded in the Arab world as an undistinguished and even rather shameful work, not worthy of literary examination. Interestingly, some of the best-known tales in the collection turn out to be the invention of 18th-century French translators, some of which were translated back into Arabic and inserted in the text. It is a mess, a ragbag, and Supple is right to celebrate that.

Interestingly, different theatrical languages turn out to mesh much better than different physical traditions of theatre. Try to imagine an RSC actor performing with a Comedie Française actor, and you see the difference in gesture and style. But to drop in and out of a language – that seems, potentially, the height of fluid theatrical sophistication. I long to see what Supple does next.

Edinburgh still struggles in the hear and now

Back in the day, the Edinburgh audience for classical music was renowned for being somewhat conservative. Have things changed? The Philadelphia Orchestra offered two programmes under Charles Dutoit: one, which would have been popular in the 1950s, if not the 1920s, was of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, the Berlioz Fantastique and, without irony, the Sibelius Finlandia. That was utterly sold out. On the other hand, we had no difficulty walking into the box office and buying a pair of tickets, an hour in advance, for their concert of 20th-century classics, including the minuscule challenge of Stravinsky's Chant du Rossignol. In the end, it was all but full, but I couldn't help reflecting that matters might have been the other way round in London or Berlin. There, popular taste has decisively shifted in the last 20 years or so, and enthusiasm is more marked for the sumptuous orchestral showpieces of Stravinsky and Ravel than for Tchaikovsky. I can't remember the last time I heard Finlandia live – possibly some time in the early 1980s. Taste has its regional stresses, and the audience for classical music in Edinburgh still strikes one as local, rather than based on the seasonal visitors. Still, anyone scared away by the dread name of Stravinsky missed a storming account of the Rachmaninov Symphonic Dances, which the Philadelphia have in their blood, and a Ravel La Valse that brought an end to the Austro-Hungarian Empire with sensational fury and rumpus.

How to squander Fringe benefits

Though I've been coming to Edinburgh for years,I've never been to an event on the Fringe. I don't know why – partly, I guess, a long-standing terror of audience participation, which I imagine constantly on the verge of breaking out in those Fringe venues. Partly, too, a terror of finding myself at one of those legendary Fringe performances where it's just you in the audience as what turns out to be a student company from the University of Liverpool perspires its way through The Real Inspector Hound. This year we decided that this could not go on. Arriving at the fag-end of August – I was to read at the Books festival – we decided just to go to something. Since anything we had heard of was sold out, we threw ourselves at the mercy of the nice ladies at the Fringe box office. Could they recommend something? No: they were not allowed to recommend anything. I can see why the Fringe has this rule, but it seems rather harsh. If I ran the festival, I would make it a condition of employment that staff had to see at least two randomly selected shows a day, and report back to customers in the most glowing or critical terms. A box-office assistant saying, "Oh, I saw that sketch show from Stockport – it was OK" would have me every time. Anyway, another year passed, and another year was free from the Fringe's best, or worst.



arts@independent.co.uk

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