Cards on the table: I don’t speak Norwegian. Or Russian. This isn’t exactly a problem most days of the week but a working knowledge of the original language might help when it comes to dissecting Ibsen and Chekhov.
The business of plays in translation raised its head last week with Ian Rickson’s new West End production of Uncle Vanya, starring Toby Jones and Rosalind Eleazar. They shine as Vanya and Yelena, both of them alive to, and enlivening, every detail of the text. But exactly whose text is it?
Chekhov’s, surely? Not quite. According to the publicity and programme, this is not a translation, a term now routinely dropped in favour of “in a version by…” But this is not even a version. According to the programme, this is “a new adaptation” by Conor McPherson from a literal translation by Helen Rappaport. Is it, perhaps, an adaptation too far?
There are always going to be questions of perspective when presenting or watching a play from the 1890s, even when the play was written in English – think revivals of Oscar Wilde’s comedies or early Bernard Shaw. These now arrive emblazoned with the status of ‘classics’ but at their premieres they were, of course, simply pieces of new writing anxiously awaiting critical and audience approval such as we would now recognise with premieres at, say, London’s Royal Court or the Traverse in Edinburgh.
But 2020 audiences simply cannot watch such revivals without being influenced by our notions of the Victorian era, and all the plays, films and TV dramas we’ve seen. As novelist LP Hartley famously put it in the opening of The Go-Between: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”
There is, of course, no such thing as a ‘pure’ rendering of a play from a foreign language. So who better to cleave to a foreign dramatist’s tone and intent than another dramatist? Yet when the teller is one such as Inua Ellams, taking on Three Sisters (currently at the National in London), or McPherson with Uncle Vanya, the question of authorship can become blurred.
There is no such thing as a ‘pure’ rendering of a play from a foreign language
The plot and dramatis personae remained the same but Friel’s slant radically shifted Ibsen’s dark tone. Most of the characters, especially Ibsen’s fascinatingly contradictory heroine, became unhelpfully explicable. That robbed the play of Ibsen’s carefully constructed tension and the fascination that he created by deliberately being unclear about his characters’ motives.
Friel gave Hedda a speech in which she revealed herself to be the victim of depression. It won sympathy but weakened the drama. And where Ibsen dangerously risks losing audience sympathy for Hedda by only slowly revealing her pain, Friel overstated his case too early for both her and several other characters.
Ironically, Friel appeared to have rewritten Ibsen’s play as if it were by Chekhov – a writer whose works he had previously adapted for his own purposes on several occasions. In the case of Uncle Vanya, however, McPherson has rewritten Chekhov as if it were one of his own plays.
The text is shorter and leaner than the original, which plays well to contemporary tastes, but oversharpens things and leads to over-expression. That’s most apparent in his handling of the monologues, a technique favoured by McPherson in much of his own writing, in particular The Weir and Port Authority.
McPherson and Rickson’s cast punch out their soliloquies. So much so that characters’ motives and thinking are fully revealed to themselves and the audience. But it only goes to show that too much self-knowledge by a character is a dangerous thing. It leeches the scenes that follow of tension.
What should be engrossing subtext is turned into text – with diminishing dramatic returns. Previously, the unspoken feelings that are Chekhov’s hallmark have always moved me. This time I could see the sadnesses being signalled, underlined and explained, but using both show and tell, they cancelled each other out.
Which is not to say that dramatist translators shouldn’t have licence to depart from the authorial intent. But perhaps they should take a leaf out of Alan Ayckbourn’s book.
In 2011, relocating Uncle Vanya to 1930s England, he retitled the play Dear Uncle. And even before that he rewrote it into his masterpiece. The Norman Conquests, his compelling 1973 trilogy of interlocked plays about six characters in stasis behaving badly with love and life set in, respectively, the dining room, sitting room and garden of a suburban home over one tricky weekend is, basically, Uncle Vanya in Surbiton.
Maybe a shift in a play’s tone should be accompanied with a title change, alerting audiences to the fact they’re getting something different.
Read David Benedict’s columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/author/david-benedict