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For British Actor, Czech Play Is A 'Master' Stroke

June 11, 1987|JANICE ARKATOV

Amazing the lengths some people will go to to meet their heroes. Consider British actor Simon Callow. He figured the best way to get to Czech playwright Milan Kundera was to translate one of his pieces.

He chose "Jacques and His Master" (opening Friday, under his direction, at the Los Angeles Theatre Center).

"Suddenly, wonderfully, out of the blue came a letter from Milan Kundera with a copy of the play, inscribed by him. He'd just seen me in (a small role in the film) 'Amadeus' and said, 'I know in my heart that you must play my Jacques--so I give you the right to translate it.' " Callow smiled slyly. "Of course, I already had."

It happened, he said cheerfully, "while we were making 'A Room With a View.' " (He played the Rev. Beebe.) "A young man should have an occupation on a film, you know. For most of the (movie-making) process, you just aren't engaged at all. And what's worse, you don't see the result of your work for maybe a year. So you feel a peculiar sense of not having done anything." (Actually, Callow began the work in a hospital bed, recuperating from a motorbike accident in Crete.)

He stressed that this is a translation, not an adaptation: "I always try to mirror the grammar, the shape of a sentence, because I think the thought of a language is embedded in that. (Other) translators often look at work and say, 'Ah, yes, but in English, we say. . . . ' I've not. I've struggled to find a point at which the English and French really do meet each other.

"I've also translated a play ("The Infernal Machine") by Jean Cocteau," he said, "and that was a much harder task. He's a lord of the French language and uses it in a very showy way: two pages of verbs--'I wind, I twist, I meld.'

"It was a nightmare. There's a translation of that used in America that's graceful, reads very well indeed. But (the translator) cut huge lumps out of the text and just put in equivalents.

"Tom Stoppard does something else, Stoppardization : He transposes the geography, changes characters--just uses the notion of the play to make something of his own. I don't disapprove of that. Yet I do fear that a lot of people aren't getting to encounter the writer themselves; they're always being mediated by someone else.

"There is nothing of me in this. The word choices have been entirely dictated by Milan. I want people to see the play he wrote."

When he isn't translating other people's works, Callow, 38, is a writer, too. His books include "Being an Actor," an in-the-works biography of Charles Laughton ("I've behaved badly on some sets, but never as badly as Charles"), and a planned tome on directing.

"I've always believed that any drama education should involve trying to write a play," he said. "Only then do you understand what a play's all about. Only then do you understand how each word weighs, how it matters. And, similarly, all actors should learn how to direct. Whether they do it well is another matter."

And whether they're allowed is still another.

"English actors aren't terribly welcome in America," he said firmly. "In fact, they don't give (work) permits unless you're internationally famous--which I'm not." But he may be getting there.

Having created the role of Mozart in the original staging of "Amadeus," Callow went on to wider fame as the star of a British sitcom--"and then 'A Room With a View' just transformed that position globally. So it's been very nice in terms of employability and marketability." (His other film credits include 1987's "The Good Father" and the upcoming "Maurice." In that, he said happily, "I had two scenes. Denholm Elliott had two scenes. Ben Kingsley had only one. . . . ")

For now, Callow the actor is clearly enjoying the chance to wear his director's hat for "Jacques."

"It's about two men roaming the world, telling each other stories. Milan has a very fatalistic, Nietzschean view of eternal repetitions; at the end, they realize all of their stories have been repetitions. They're alone in the universe, but they have each other: the man who tells the story and the man who listens. "They aren't equals at all. But they do need each other--master needs servant and servant needs master. It's ironic, sort of teasing theater, very sophisticated and very innocent at the same time. It's fun of a rather deep kind."

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