Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

Do not disturb

Want to set Private Lives in a drying-out clinic, or add music to Waiting for Godot? Fine - but don't expect the play's owners to approve.

Stanley Kowalski is a former Polish Solidarity activist with a new life in the US smuggling whiskey and advertising gum wearing an ape suit. His wife, Stella, is bottle-blonde trailer trash who plans to video the birth of her baby and sell it on the internet. Her sister, Blanche DuBois, is a former teacher of Polish literature, now washed up at Stella and Stanley's flat, where there is a video link to the bathroom. The soundtrack to these sick lives is Lou Reed, Nirvana, Britney Spears and Don McLean.
Blanche's would-be beau, Mitch, re-enacts the shower scene from Psycho when he discovers that Blanche is a bit of a tramp - something the audience already knows, as her past has been announced in neon lighting across the top of the stage. The setting is New Orleans - but it is also contemporary Berlin and a world trying to come to terms with its Polish neighbours and a post-communist era where capitalism and individual depression go hand in hand.

Welcome to A Streetcar Named Desire, or Endstation Amerika as Frank Castorf's derailment of Tennessee Williams' gothic melodrama is now called. Recognisably true to the original, Castorf's production also refashions it so that it talks directly to post-cold war theatre-goers. It is a big hit at Berlin's Volksbühne, and has played to great acclaim abroad. But if anyone from the UK wants to see it, they'll have to travel to Germany - because Castorf's production cannot be performed in English-speaking areas of the world. Thanks to this absurd ruling by those who hold the rights to the play, Endstation Amerika was allowed to visit French-speaking Montreal, but not English-speaking Toronto.

In a theatrical age where the director is king and the quickest way to make your mark and your reputation is to let your ego run rampant on an established text, it is perhaps not surprising that estates and literary executors feel bound to protect the reputations of those who can no longer protect themselves. Unfortunately, these guardians often behave like ferocious guard dogs and are in danger of deterring directors and theatre companies from tackling classic works in new ways and keeping those texts alive. You wonder whether Shakespeare would still be our contemporary if a security guard stood over his plays, preventing directors from putting A Midsummer Night's Dream in a white box with trapezes or setting Richard III in a totalitarian state.

One of the most notorious literary policemen is the Samuel Beckett estate, which watches over productions with a vigilance that has made it a laughing stock. Earlier this year, Neil Armfield's well-received Sydney festival production of Waiting for Godot incurred wrath for its "illegal" use of music. Back in 1995, Deborah Warner fell foul of licensing rules with a production of Footfalls that did not follow the stage directions to the letter - and was banned from Beckett for life. "Plays are fluid things, not objects," Warner responded at the time. "They can only exist by being reinterpreted for each generation."

The great irony is that it is often the playwrights considered most radical in their own era who are most in danger of having their work preserved in aspic by the estates charged with ensuring their longevity. As Armfield commented at the time of his production, it is "the dead controlling hand" that turns out to be "the enemy of art".

Paul Davies, of the excellent Welsh-based company Volcano, has had dealings with the Noël Coward and Dylan Thomas estates, neither of which have shown any inclination to keep Private Lives or Under Milk Wood alive in any but the dustiest sense. His version of Private Lives, set in a drying-out clinic in the former eastern Europe, has been invited all over the world, but is licensed to play only in Wales.

Davies despairs at how difficult it is to have a real dialogue with the guardians of the status quo. "Their notion of what constitutes quality is unarticulated. These are often people with no knowledge or sympathy for the artistic process - but with the power to say no. You end up negotiating not from a position of equality, but one of servitude. In my experience it is much easier to deal with the living than the dead."

It is odd, but it is certainly true that the dead rather than the living are the most litigious. The reason, perhaps, is that living playwrights can often understand the artistic arguments of a director, whereas many estates are run by lawyers and accountants who have neither the expertise nor the inclination to sort out the crazed from the truly creative.

Arthur Miller is a fine example. New York's Wooster Group is famed for playing around with classic texts, but when the company used Miller's play The Crucible as the basis for a show called LSD (Just the High Points), Miller decided it was a deconstruction too far and got an injunction preventing use of the text. Saucily, the Woosters responded by using a timer to mark each of the one-minute segments of copyrighted text that they were allowed by law to use. The Wooster Group's approach to classic texts is an attempt to rescue them from the museum, and even Miller eventually came to see the importance of this. "They were swinging on swings and speaking at a rate of speed that I could not follow. It just seemed to me to be kidding around with an important theme, and negating it. But I have to confess that I ran into young people who had seen it and were tremendously moved by it. I just had to think: my sensibility must be totally at variance to this."

Such borrowings from playwrights have, of course, a parallel in the sampling rife in today's music business (itself subject to the occasional court case). But it's also worth remembering that the first theatrical samplers were Shakespeare and the Jacobean playwrights. Shakespeare borrowed most of his plots from other sources; if he were writing now, he would be constantly locked in litigation.

Justin Butcher found himself in difficulties recently when he drew on Stanley Kubrick's cold war film Dr Strangelove for his political satire The Madness of George Dubya, penned in just three days in response to the Iraq war. When fringe success led to a West End transfer, rights were sought from the Kubrick estate and the film-maker's widow; permission was granted, and the play ran for 22 weeks in the West End. When offers to do the play flooded in from over 50 theatres in the US, however, the estate's accountants and lawyers took fright at the possible damage any production might do to Kubrick's legacy in the current political climate in the US. Their refusal to allow a US production was, says Butcher, "an entirely political decision that I don't agree with. If Kubrick were alive I don't think he would agree with it either."

Rose Fenton of the London international festival of theatre has asked if she can bring Endstation Amerika to the UK, to no avail. What she finds so frustrating is the estates' inability to appreciate how "theatre forms and expressions change in response to changing societies. A piece may not have the same resonance 50 or 100 years later that it did when it was written. Directors must have the freedom to revisit plays in a way that reflects this." She finds the Williams estate's intransigence symptomatic of a theatre world where preserving the text is seen as sacred. "In English-speaking theatre, the word is predominant and that is what they are trying to protect. But theatre is not just the word on the page. It is also interpretation. The irony is that in so jealously guarding the words, they may end up killing them."

· Endstation Amerika is in rep at the Volksb¿hne, Berlin. Box office: 00 49 30 247 6772.

author:Lyn Gardner

original source: The Guaardian
13 December 2003


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