February 2006 Scotland on Sunday

THIS time last year, John Clifford was tidying up his stage adaptation of Anna Karenina. The Royal Lyceum was about to put it on – in a production later described by The Scotsman as "beautiful and gripping" – giving him cause to reflect on the time, 13 years earlier, when he'd first tackled Tolstoy's epic romantic tragedy.

In 2005, having just suffered the death of his wife, Sue Innes, he was especially attuned to the way his version of the book was full of echoes of their old life together. "My life is very much bound up in that play," he told me last March.

But if there were connections to be made with Anna Karenina, they are as nothing compared to the connections the playwright has made in his audacious adaptation of Goethe's Faust for the same Edinburgh company this year.

You might have thought there was little in common between Faust, the early-19th century tale of a man who sells his soul to the devil in return for a glimpse of Helen of Troy, and John Clifford, the 21st century father of two, who gave up nursing over 20 years ago to become one of Scotland's foremost playwrights and, more recently, professor of theatre at Edinburgh's Queen Margaret University College.

Yet Clifford, 55, has taken Goethe's famously unstageable two-volume dramatic poem and invested in it not only resonances of today's political scene but also a flavour of the major changes in his own life. The audience need not know it, but the character who takes to the stage talking about the evil that "destroyed the one person [he] truly loved" is an embodiment of Clifford himself.

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Likewise, the journey this character – a poet and narrator – takes from male to female over the course of two consecutive evenings in the theatre finds a parallel in Clifford's shifting attitudes to his own sexual identity. Today the playwright, whose 2003 play God's New Frock was about sexuality, repression and transvestism, describes himself as "transgendered" and prefers to be known as Jo.

"John and Jo are very important parts of me," says Clifford cheerfully, showing no sign of a split personality as we meet for lunch in a Royal Mile restaurant. "I'm not saying goodbye to John, but I am on a journey. It's hard to tell what it means to be called Jo – it just became clear to me that John wasn't my name any more. Maybe John was Susie's husband.

"Being transgendered isn't a new thing, it's been going on since way before I started writing. It's enriched my ability to write plays and it's also been a source of huge distress. Part of the art of an artist is learning how to use blows, grief and distress and turn them into positives. It's a kind of alchemy."

But is it right to load the work of a translated author with so many of the translator's personal concerns? From Clifford's point of view, it would be wrong to do otherwise. For him, translation requires an act of engagement that goes much deeper than a word-for-word approximation. Literal translation is not enough: he must capture the very spirit of Goethe.

"I have put a lot of myself in, but what I've created is very true to Goethe," he says. "Goethe described his work as 'fragments of a great confession', so there was an awful lot of him in there as well. Being personal is my way of being faithful to the original.

"There's a danger of it becoming self-referential, but hopefully, because the play is so rooted in my experience of looking after Susie while she was dying, it will give the whole project a fire, energy and directness that will be of benefit."

He's taken a similarly liberal approach throughout – staying true to the impulse but not the letter of the original. Goethe's barbed comments about the 19th century education system, for example, have been replaced by digs at our own academic institutions, while his satire of political power has been updated to today's world order.

Similarly, the gender-shifting poet, although entirely Clifford's invention, is consistent with Goethe's concern with the battle between masculine and feminine values.

"The further you get into Faust Part Two, the more you see it's about the relationship between male and female at a deep, archetypal level," says Clifford whose 1987 play Playing with Fire gave female form to the Faust myth. "A major concern of the play is how we relate to the feminine within all of us. Goethe was hundreds of years ahead of his time – even ahead of our own time – in that. Again, because it happens to reflect a journey I'm making in my own life, hopefully it will add to the dramatic force. These are not issues I'm wrestling with in the abstract, they're there every day of my life."

In the case of Faust, there's another factor at play. This is a work that obsessed the author throughout his life. Goethe worked on it for at least 60 years and, completing it just before his death in 1832, he hid it away, an artistic statement so personal that he required no audience for it. The published version comes in two fat volumes and you'd need a lot more than two evenings if you wanted to perform it in its entirety.

Because of this, Clifford's job has been one of adaptation as much as translation. "By the time Goethe got to writing the second part, he'd decided that drama was the antithesis of what he wanted to do," he says. "Not only is it physically impossible to stage, but it is fundamentally untheatrical. So I feel it’s important to treat it in exactly the same way as if I was adapting a novel. If you did it all and made the audience sit through eight hours of something that was untheatrical, you wouldn't be doing them or Goethe any favours at all."

Even with excisions and alterations, Clifford's version is still clocking up around 100 characters in two two-and-a-half hour sittings. Mark Thomson's production, with Paul Brennen in the title role, has to give life to angels, witches, baboons and dogs and cope with a free-flowing writing style that appears to know no boundaries.

Its anarchic energy and modern-day references recall Tankred Dorst's two-part Merlin, translated by Tom McGrath for the Lyceum in 1992 and 1993, the last time this theatre attempted anything quite so ambitious – and even then over two years rather than all at once.

It's also the rudest thing Clifford has ever written, something that might come as a shock to those familiar with the classical eloquence of plays such as Inés de Castro, adapted by James MacMillan into an opera, and translations such as Calderon's Life is a Dream. Those who enjoyed the in-your-face brilliance of Calixto Bieito's La Celestina, which Clifford translated for the Edinburgh International Festival of 2004, might be less taken aback.

"The original is an incredible, wild mixture of lyric poetry, high intellectual content, the bawdy and the trivial," he says. "As Goethe was rewriting, he softened the tone and made it more abstract and less explicit. I've tried to make it direct and theatrical which means, if you respect what he says, you end up going down a very rude path without really intending to.

"It is unusual for me, but the story takes you where it needs to go and that may not necessarily be the place you want to go. There's a lot in this play that some people might find immoral, but it is a very moral play. You've got to make the devil real on stage and it's unlikely that the devil will be a nice person, so you assume he's going to be extremely rude, offensive and obscene.

"Calixto Bieito taught me to be very bold, not to be afraid, to follow a story where it had to go to and not to worry. I learned a lot from him. I've always felt a very isolated figure on the British stage because I never wanted to write naturalism. I've sometimes had a tendency to be apologetic, defensive or hold myself back because of that, but Calixto taught me I don't need to.

"So when I handed in the first draft of Faust, I told Mark Thomson I didn't recognise my own writing any more. I don't know who this person is. It's a big step forward in lots of ways. This play is ambitious, colossal, universal and incredibly exciting and it's a fantastic act of courage for Mark and the Lyceum to put it on."

Faust parts I and II, Royal Lyceum, February 25–April 8 in repertoire

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