Edinburgh Festival 2012: Swiss My Fair Lady
Graham Valentine, the Scottish star of an experimental Swiss take on My Fair Lady tells Mark Brown why audiences must learn to listen carefully.
The name of actor Graham Valentine is not well known, even in his native Scotland. But that is hardly surprising — he hasn’t performed in his home country since the early 1980s. But now the graduate of the Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris has returned home as the lead in Swiss director Christoph Marthaler’s Meine faire Dame — ein Sprachlabor (My Fair Lady — a language laboratory) at the Edinburgh International Festival.
When I meet the dapper, middle-aged man with a shock of wild red hair, he seems confident and relaxed about the show. Well he might be. He has been a member of Marthaler’s Theater Basel ensemble for 30 years.
Moreover, Valentine, who plays Hungarian linguist Professor Karpathy in the show, is a former language teacher himself. Fluent in French, German and Italian, he taught languages at a school in Aberdeen before embarking on his acting career.
His teaching experience has certainly fed into Marthaler’s very liberal take on Lerner and Loewe’s musical My Fair Lady. “When I was a language teacher, that’s what it was like,” he says of the language-lab booths in the play. “Everyone would sit in booths and I would be sitting out the front, barking at the students. It’s basically the same situation at the beginning of this production, except that I’m trying to get them to pronounce their English properly.”
Karpathy is living under the threat of a frightening riddle which suggests that someone is about to expose his great secret. The language lab, and indeed the narrative of My Fair Lady (from which Marthaler veers away wildly), are merely means by which the director pursues his theatre of language, musicality and, if the appreciative German critics are to be believed, hilarious comedy.
“The males in the play are manifestations of Henry Higgins (from My Fair Lady) and the women are manifestations of Eliza Doolittle, but the age of the characters ranges from the thirties to over 70,” says Valentine. Beyond that, he explains, the show barely resembles My Fair Lady at all. Indeed, he cautions Edinburgh audiences against searching for narrative threads or clearly defined meanings in the piece.
“You just have to sit there and watch and listen,” he says. “It’s an experience. It’s not the kind of thing where you ask, ‘What does this mean?’
“There are lots of very long bits, which make people nervous. You’re sitting watching it, thinking ‘when is something going to happen here?’ That’s the whole point, however. You have to use your ears as well as your eyes; but that’s difficult in this age in which we’re smothered with visual images all the time.
“We’re not used to using our ears. What you take in with your eyes flashes. With your ears, you have to spend more time; you’re having to understand language and music, and it works more slowly. Visual intake and audio intake are working on two different speeds. The audience for our work has to be patient, and just relax in a comfortable seat.”
Valentine is a little uncertain how the show will go down with British audiences. “We (Theater Basel) have only been asked to Britain once before, to LIFT (London International Festival of Theatre),” he says. The RSC apparently chose not to invite Marthaler’s company to the UK with their acclaimed production of Twelfth Night. Valentine remains surprised and more than a little miffed at this. “It was a brilliant production. We toured all over Europe with it, but it wasn’t good enough for that bunch of wankers.”
But if the RSC didn’t get Marthaler’s version of Shakespeare’s comedy, Edinburgh International Festival director Jonathan Mills is fully enthusiastic about this version of a famous musical —so much so that he has put the show in the vast Lowland Hall. It’s a suitable venue for a major production that seems set to challenge and delight in equal measure.
Meine faire Dame is at the Lowland Hall, Royal Highland Centre, Edinburgh, August 14-19
This feature was originally published in the Daily Telegraph on August 13, 2012
© Mark Brown