A choice of theatre from seven countries to honour Shakespeare's anniversary NO one Ns ho has read a newspaper in these past weeks could be unaware of the fact that somethihg of historic importance—in the theatrical sense—is taking place at London's Aldwych Theatre.
It all began three weeks ago, when the curtain went up on a performance of Tartuffe by the
omedie-Francaise, The World Theatre Season, marking the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth, was tinder way. .
It is, of course. hardly accurate to say it all beecut three weeks ago. For months before the governors of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, impresario Mr. Peter Dattheny, and the Sunday Telegraph, who are sponsoring the season, had been hard at work planning a drama festival which would bring to London the best of the world's theatre.
As a result. the leading theatre companies of seven different countries were booked to appear. Each Nsould bring its top directors and actors, its own scenery and technicians, and each would perform in its own language.
So much for thc plans. The Comedie-Francaise has been and gone: at the moment it is the turn of the West Berlin Schiller Theatre. Next will come Peppin° de Filippo and his famous cornany from Italy.
Dublin's Abbey Theatre will occupy the stage at the Aldwych for a short season. and then it will be the turn of the Polish Teatr Wspolezesny. Greece will be represented by the Greek Arts Theatre and finally, in June, the Moscow Art Theatre will wind up the season.
Names, famous names in their own countries, but here in London perhaps names without real significance. In this article let me etch in some of the detail.
Lt is perhaps a little late—since their contribution to the season has already been made—to say much about the Comedie. But what needs to be said about a company that has an unbroken tradition of almost 300 years?
That the Comedie should pay tribute to Shakespeare is entirely fitting. for Shakespeare has long been one of the company's staple authors; it first showed "Hamlet" in 1769, at a time when the play was by no means popular in England.
The West Berlin Schiller Theatre is now established again as the home of Germany's great classical plays. This company's first home was destroyed in 1943, and it has had to start again literally from the ashes.
But for a real story of theatrical survival. none could equal that ot the Polish theatre. During the war the theatre in this country suffered mild dislocation: in Poland it was a case of complete paralysis, 1 hc Polish Theatre was gagged, stifled, clubbed iind dismembered.
The last performances were given in Warsaw theatres on September 5, 1939; six years were to pass before a performance was given again—publicly and legally, that is.
But during those six years, despite Governor Frank's announcement that the Poles shall have no theatres—so that they may not he reminded of what they have lost", small groups of actors did perform. always secretly. in prison camps or in private homes in their occupied cities.
Such is the indestructability of the Poles that five months after Warsaw was liberated in 1945, the first theatrical performance was given in a tiny cinema which had miraculously survived. A year later Erwin Axcr founded the company that will visit London.
Another of London's forthetinting theatrical visitors can also be said to be licking its wounds after battlealbeit a battle of a different sort.
The Abbey Theatre, always a centre of some controversy, engaged in its most recent conflict with one of Ireland's most dis tinguished playwrights, Sean O'Casey.
In 1957. after a relationship with the Abbey which had alternated between harmony and humiliation, O'Casey decided that they should sec no more of him or of his works.
As a result. Dubliners have up till recently been denied the opportunity of seeing two of his most memorable plays„ The Plough and the Stars and Juno and the Paycock.
But Mr. O'Casey has relented. This month the Abbey will bring "The Plough and the Stars" to London, and he has allowed the company "temporarily" to polish the play in Dublin prior to making the crossing of St. George's Channel.
It is worth noting that the .dialogue is to be considerably slowed down for the benefit of English ears. (No need, appar clitly, for the simultaneous translation service available at the Aldwych for foreign-language productions !).
Peppin°, who is to bring his company from Italy, commands an immense and devoted following in his homeland. This is his first visit to Britain. but when he appeared with his company in Paris last summer the ultra sophisticated audience at the Paris Theatre Festival sprang to their feet and cheered.
To put it in its simplest terms, Pcppino is a clown. His family have long followed the great Neapolitan tradition of the cornmedia dell'arte—the form of partly written, partly improvised comedy that had its nearest British counterpart in the Crazy Gang.
But off-stage Peppin° is no clown ("The trouble is that 1 can't act when I'm off stage", he told a British newspaperman. "I just have to he myself."). He is the author of more than 60 plays, has taken part in some 80 films, and incidentally was nominated last year as Italy's best-dressed man.
He is looking forward to his London visit because he believes English audiences are more appreciative and courteous than Italian ones.
I he Greek Arts Theatre is one of the younger European theatres, having been founded just before the war. Its director, Karolos Koun, will bring to London Aristophancs' "The Birds"a play which won the prize for the best contribution from any nation at the 1962 Paris festival—and which is similar in more than just name to a recent Hitchcock film.
The Moscow Arts Theatre visited Britain in 1958, when it played Chckhov to packed houses. The plays chosen for their forthcoming visit for the World Theatre Season have not been announced.
So much for the companies. The season has created immense problems for the management of the Aldwych. not least of which has been that of providing a stage which could be adapted to the use of scenery which was being brought inunsighted as it were from abroad.
'The Aldwych is without a pit for musicians, and sometime over the next weeks provision has to he made for e small orchestra needed by one of the companies.
Brief reference has been made to the simultaneous translation service available -it is not everyone who can speak French, Italian. German, Greek, Russian and Polish (and dare I say Irish?) -and this has posed a real difficulty.
The answer has been found in providing, on a rental basis rather like the way one gets opera glasses, small radio receivers which arc tuned in to the translators. The sets can be held close to the ear, and the volume level is such that not even a whisper can be heard by the person in the next seat.
Initial worries that the wavelengths might coincide with that of police officers marshalling traffic in the Strand, or the Port of London Authority, have been proven groundless.
I have seen the first two companies perform. Each has been a remarkable experience. No more the faces that have. over a period of time, become so familiar to the regular theatre-goer: no more the familiar plays: no more even the familiar style of the British theatre.
A delightful fresh bredze is blowing through the Aldwych these days. Perhaps it will manage to hlow out some of the stuffy conventions that have for so long stifled much of the theatre in this country.
All of this is indeed a very worthy way to mark Shakespeare's anniversary.
I. J. FAWCETT