Leeds' West Yorkshire Playhouse will host the world premiere of the first ever staging of George Orwell's 1938 book Homage to Catalonia, as part of a new international collaboration with controversial Catalan director Calixto Bieito and his Barcelona-based Teatro Romeo.

The production will open on 15 March 2004 in Leeds - where it will form part of a season celebrating the centenary of the birth of Orwell, a leading socialist, novelist and essayist of the 20th century - and will then visit Newcastle (home of fellow project collaborators Northern Stage Ensemble who will also present their adaptation of Animal Farm as part of the Orwell season), followed by France and Barcelona.

An intimate memoir, Homage to Catalonia captures Orwell's front line experiences while fighting for the loyalists in the Spanish Civil War, an era which permanently shaped his political beliefs. The stage version is adapted by Catalonian Pablo Ley and English writer Allan J Baker and will feature original archive footage from the war. The cast of five Spanish and five British actors will be directed by Josep Galindo, with additional artistic direction by Bieito and Northern Stage's Alan Lyddiard.

Bieito and his Teatro Romeo caused London headlines earlier this year with its reinvention of Macbeth, including graphic scenes of oral sex, necrophilia and excessive gore (See News, 8 Apr 2003). His other controversial productions have included Life Is a Dream and, at this year's Edinburgh Festival, Hamlet, as well ast the operas A Masked Ball and Don Giovanni for ENO.

Speaking at a press meeting today in London, WYP artistic director Ian Brown said, "I don't think there's going to be any necrophilia" in Homage to Catalonia though admitted that the production "is a risk" and a "hugely unknown quantity".

He also used the opportunity to underline the precarious financial state of West Yorkshire Playhouse and other major regional producing theatres, many of which have experienced funding freezes in key areas. "One of us could very easily go down - Leicester Haymarket already has," said Brown. "The worst case scenario now is that another one could. None of us are on firm footing."

While still trying to be "as radical as possible" with productions such as Homage to Catalonia, Brown warns that regional theatres must perform a "balancing act" between risk and caution in both programming and pricing because "there isn't a safety net".


In the meantime, tomorrow night (24 September 2003) sees the opening of Alan Bennett's The Madness of George III, starring Michael Pennington and directed by Rachel Kavanaugh. Staged as part of a unique collaboration with Birmingham Repertory Theatre (See News, 19 May 2003), the revival continues at WYP until 18 October and then transfers to Birmingham, swapping places with a second co-production, Toby Frow's revival of Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge, which then runs in Leeds from 25 October to 22 November 2003.

The WYP autumn/winter season also features: in the larger Quarry Theatre, Brown's Christmas staging of children's classic The Wind in the Willows, adapted by Alan Bennett (running 8 December 2003 to 14 February 2004); and in the smaller Courtyard Theatre, local writer Sol B River's new play Two Tracks and Text Me (10 October to 1 November), Femi Elufowoju's new production of Euripides' Medea (14 November to 13 December 2003), the musical compilation show Blues in the Night (19 December 2003 to 24 January 2004) and the Kneehigh/BAC co-production of The Wooden Frock (30 January to 14 February).

- by Terri Paddock