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Graham Valentine - Meine faire Dame


Graham Valentine cuts a striking dash as he enters the room. Taller 
than tall, the way he eyes you up and down with hawkish appraisal gives 
him the air of an eccentric school-master who's just caught you out 
doing something you shouldn't. This may have something to do with the 
perfectly odd match of the green tweed suit off-set by a shock of dyed 
red hair he's sporting. All of which is pretty much perfect to play 
Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, Lerner and Loewe's treatment of Bernard 
Shaw's play in which Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle is transformed 
into a cut-class society belle by the Frankenstein-like Higgins, who 
gives her elocution lessons.

Not that Meine faire Dame – ein Sprachlabor (My Fair Lady – a language 
laboratory), Swiss director Christoph Marthaler's bi-lingual creation 
for Theatre Basel that opens at Edinburgh International festival this 
week can be called a conventional version of either play. Rather, 
Marthaler sets out his store in a 1970s style language lab, in which 
foreign exchange students learn English from an eccentric professor, 
played by Valentine.

As the professor attempts to discover who left the bouquet of flowers 
on his desk, his plight is accompanied by music, not just from My Fair 
Lady, but everything from Weber, Wagner, Bryan Adams and George Michael 
besides. In looks alone, Marthaler's comic romp resembles the cast of 
unreconstructed 1970s language school based sit-com Mind Your Language 
doing a pastiche of a Crackerjack Christmas special in a group therapy 
session.

“We've always wanted to do a production of My Fair Lady,” Valentine 
says of his shared ambition with Marthaler, who he has collaborated 
with on and off for the best part of four decades. We've been talking 
about this for years, and Christoph was asked to do a show, but the 
theatre in Basel was actually doing a full scale production of the 
musical. In German, obviously, and with the songs in German too, I 
think, so he thought it would be a good idea to translate it 
approximately into German, and call it Meine faire Dame. Fair in German 
is used, but it doesn't mean fair in the sense of good looking. It mean 
fair in the sense of just, so the production is very much only using My 
Fair Lady as a launching pad.”

Words mean a lot to Valentine. This is apparent from the way he 
enunciates every syllable of his collaborators' names with all the 
perfectly posed inflections acquired from their place of origin. In 
this sense, Valentine has more in common with Henry Higgins than he 
might care to admit.

“I used to be a language teacher before I became an actor,” he says, 
“and also when I was a child in Dundee I was sent to elocution lessons, 
so I've always, from about the age of five, been very aware of 
language. Also, being brought up in Scotland in the working class that 
wanted to get on, in the education system we had back in the fifties, 
you were discouraged from speaking in ordinary Scots, and certainly in 
the Dundee dialect. You were constantly corrected by every walking 
authority  that  thought it was in your interest that you be 
approximatising yourself to BBC standard English.

“That was just a far off ideal, but going to an elocution teacher was 
part of the process for certain people. It was beginning to go out of 
fashion in those days, but there were still lots of kids who did it, 
and that was got me interested in the theatre as well. But basically it 
taught me to look objectively on  language as a means of communication, 
and it taught me also that the English language was something that has 
been appropriated by a certain group of people in British society for 
their own ends, to make sure they retained the hegemony. So you had to 
buy into the right to speak English, because Scotland's been used and 
exploited by the English to do their hard work for them for hundreds of 
years. From the start of the Union onwards, everyone was desperate to 
get down to London and learn how to speak proper English. In James 
Boswell's time they were up to that as well. So there was this 
elocution tradition, to which I owe a lot, but it was also very much a 
system to keep people down. That's what Pygmalion and My Fair Lady are 
all about, this pretentious, pompous t*** presuming to know how you're 
supposed to speak, but that's what British society's always been about 
as well.”

Valentine first went onstage in Dundee aged six in a church hall next 
to where Dundee Rep theatre now stands. This was at the behest of his 
elocution teacher, who had a studio on Tay Square, and hired the church 
hall to put on a show with her students every year. For Valentine, it 
was a life-changing experience.

“I wasn't good or precocious in any kind of way, but there was 
something about it that I found fascinating, the sort of terror and 
thrill, the stage fright, all of that.”

It was learning foreign languages, however, that Valentine saw as a 
potential passport out of Dundee. By the time he arrived at secondary 
school, he was desperate to learn French, then later studied German and 
Latin.

“It was like going into a new world to get out of this musty 
atmosphere,” he says. “Looking back, I didn't think that at the time, 
but that must have been what it was. It was like opening a skylight and 
flying out into the blue, just the possibility of communicating in and 
reading in another language.”

Valentine went to university in Aberdeen, and met Marthaler while 
spending a year in Switzerland after teaching in Aberdeen for four 
years. Marthaler was working as a musician, and the pair kept in touch. 
After five years as a language teacher, Valentine decided to take his 
interest in theatre beyond an amateur level, and he studied at the 
Jacques Lecog school in France. After working in Paris for two years, 
Valentine moved back to Britain, where he met director Deborah Warner, 
and joined KICK, the theatre company she founded in 1980 for young 
amateur actors.

Back in Scotland, Valentine worked with Dundee Rep, the Royal Lyceum in 
Edinburgh and Communicado, with whom he appeared in Blood Wedding. 
Valentine never embraced the rep system.

“It didn't interest me,” he says. “There wasn't really anything going 
on apart from one or two dance companies and small companies like 
Communicado.

Valentine was a permanent member of the Schauspielhaus in Zurich for 
four years, but “I didn't  like being a permanent member of anything.”

After eight years living in Paris, Valentine has just moved back to 
Edinburgh. Whether this means we'll be seeing more of him on Scottish 
stages remains to be seen. Either way, Valentine remains as 
single-minded as ever.

“I don't really go in for roles,” he says. “I'm more interested in 
creating something new using material which is in me.”

Meine faire Dame – ein Sprachlabor, EIF, Lowland Hall, Royal Highland 
Centre, August 14th-15th and Aug 18-19th, 7.30pm; Aug 17th, 2pm

www.eif.co.uk
The Herald, August 14th 2012

ends

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