January 17, 2006
IT'S difficult to imagine why classic plays need to be adapted, let alone who would dare to tinker with them. After all, they are called classics precisely because of their lasting greatness: superbly written investigations of the human condition and humbling reminders that people of all eras - the ancient Greeks, the Jacobeans, us - have wrestled with the same ethical quandaries without ever resolving them.
Every production is an adaptation, says playwright Andrew Upton, who has specialised in reworking classical texts of late.
More importantly, it is a thorough revision of the text itself, usually not only written in a foreign language, but in the language of a particular era: Moliere's 17th-century French, Chekhov's late 19th-century Russian, Ibsen's Norwegian of the same era.
The texts are riddled with allusions and locutions which would have been clear to the audiences of the day - and may even still be, with hindsight, to audiences who speak the language - but which fail to connect, or to connect with the same impact, here and now.
Upton begins with a specially prepared literal translation of the original: not a literary translation, but the words directly transferred into English, with no concession for idiom.
"A bad translation," Upton calls it, "which is quite hard to read. A lot of it doesn't make sense. So, 'a big day for frogs', say, means nothing to us, but in Russian, it might be quite funny."
The playwright's intention becomes clearer on reading and pondering the literal translation. It clarifies the "linguistic register" in which the dramatist has written and allows accommodations which can bring out the same reactions in Australian audiences that the play in its original brought out in its audiences.
In The Cherry Orchard, for example, Gayev uses a word which might idiomatically be translated as "crap". And yet, that word didn't bring out the arrested infantilism of Gayev's expression in Russian: Upton translated it as "poo", a very Australian word which better evokes the tone of the original.
Robyn Nevin, the actor and director who heads the STC, is appearing in Upton's The Cherry Orchard.
She recalls the frustration of working on a Hedda Gabler some years ago when half a dozen different English-language versions were floating round the rehearsal room. "The consistency of one clear voice is very important," she says. (...)
[Edited at 2006-01-17 10:06]
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