On the translation of plays

Earlier this summer, I had the opportunity to sit in on a reading of a French text, “Sanctuaire.” As it happens, the text is a new translation of “Safe House,” the first part of my play The Lavender Railroad. A translator here in Ottawa, Hugues Beaudoin-Dumouchel, has been working with a local French company, Théâtre de la Vieille 17 and although I am only tangentially involved in the process, I’ve found the exercise to be fascinating.

I’ve always had a theoretical appreciation of the translator’s art, especially when it comes to literary texts. Living in Ottawa, where the omnipresent political debates are addressed in both French and English, I certainly understand how challenging it can be to find the right way of expressing a phrase or an idea in another language. As in politics, so in the arts: there are always subtexts and subtleties that are harder to translate than the bare words – yet the meaning of what’s being said is likelier to be found there than in the words themselves. How do translators do this? As I say, it’s an art.

What was fun for me in this instance, though, was the chance to observe Hugues and to answer the (many) questions he had about the words and phrases I’d selected. This happens to be a text with plenty of allusions that are probably quite mysterious to a non-English speaker; and there are more than a few puns that are surely impossible to translate to another language. Writers always have to make choices – here was an opportunity to revisit the choices I’d made and to explain the reasoning behind them, if only to help guide Hugues in his own work as he made his own choices.

The title – “Safe House” – was a relatively easy task, and Hugue’s choice of “Sanctuaire” as the French version was in my view probably better than the original English. “Sanctuary” conveys certain concepts that “Safe House” doesn’t (and vice versa) – in particular, a religious connotation that ties in nicely with the themes of the “Ex Cathedra” part of the play. Things get tougher, though, once we get to the text itself. What do you do with an allusion to the movie Casablanca? Do you keep it in, assuming that a French audience is familiar with the film? Or do you find a comparable French work – a film, a play, a novel – that will resonate in the same way? Harder still was a reference to T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land” – it seems there is no French equivalent that really works.

And what about the characters themselves? Sebastian is from the American South, which among other things connects the titular Lavender Railroad with the historical Underground Railroad. Does he remain so in the French version? Or does the translation require a “translation” of the character to a different social background? What happens then to the Lavender Railroad? (And how do you translate that in a meaningful way?)

These are the kind of tasks that the translator faces, and for me the fun was to read Hugue’s choices, and then to hear them read by actors earlier this summer. The story was familiar, as were the characters, but once a piece has been translated it is very much a new “interpretation” – simply because the translator has had to interpret the playwright’s text, just as directors and designers and actors do. And so the delight I felt was very much akin to what I enjoy when a new group of artists mount one of my plays – I get to rediscover the piece through their senses, and often I learn new things about the piece.

I very much hope Hugues goes on to translate the rest of the play, and I’ll be very interested to see a French production of it. I’m sure it will very much hold its own!

The Lavender Rose

1377619_10151946715857177_1745512476_nThe Rose was a theatre in Elizabethan London. Built in 1587, it was the fifth such in the city and the first to be built on Bankside, not the most reputable part of town at the time. It was joined in the neighborhood a few years later by the Globe, which continues to get a lot of press because of that Shakespeare fellow. The remains of the theatre’s foundations were discovered during an excavation in 1989 and a trust has been established with plans to complete excavations of the foundations and to develop the site as an educational and historical resource.

My good friend Jessica Ruano, who moved to London from Ottawa a couple of years ago, has been involved in a number of projects at the Rose, which is being used as a venue once again for various theatrical productions, including Jessica’s excellent adaptation of As You Like It. When Jessica brought a show to the Ottawa Fringe Festival last year, we got to talking about the Rose and we agreed it would be an interesting venue in which to stage a reading of my play The Lavender Railroad with some of the actors she’s been working with in London.

Ross Mullan as Mother Courage

Ross Mullan as Mother Courage

In many ways, the setting was perfect for the play. It’s underground. It’s dark and murky. In the background you hear an unsteady drip-drip-drip of water. There’s a damp chill in the air. What better environment in which to present a chilling and claustrophobic story about terrible choices in an amoral world?

Sarita Plowman as the Sister

Sarita Plowman as the Sister

I was very pleased with how the evening went and am grateful to Jessica and her actors, Ross Mullan, Ben Warwick and Sarita Plowman, for bringing the play to life in so dismally perfect an environment. I know that the folks who are managing the Rose have great plans for the future and will be quite eager to see what kinds of productions will be seen in this unique space in the future.

A new Lavender Railroad

Just a short note to let readers know that there’s going to be a staged reading of The Lavender Railroad in March near New York City. The play will be presented by HRC Showcase Theatre in Hudson, which is an easy train ride north of Manhattan.

One reason I’m looking forward to this production is because I had a very detailed phone conversation with the director, Barbara Waldinger, last week. She’s clearly given the piece a great deal of thought and wants to get all the details right as she rehearses with her actors. For my part, I enjoyed the opportunity to get reacquainted with Mother Courage, Sebastian, the Commander and the Sister, not to mention the general mood and tone of the piece.

I’ve been invited down by the company to participate in a discussion of the play after the performance on the evening of Saturday, March 9, and I’m very much looking forward to meeting the cast, crew and audience. Details about the production are here. If you’re in the neighborhood, come by and say hello!

The Enigma of Playing Alan Turing

A friend of mine works at the Communications Security Establishment, a Canadian government agency that does a lot of Very Secret Stuff involving codes and such. Like many other workplaces, they were having a “Bring your kids to work” day, though I’m not sure how this works if you can’t show them what you actually do. The day was to start with a little sketch about two of the great heroes of the code-breaking world, William Tutte and Alan Turing. My friend invited me to play the role of Turing.

Now, many people know that my route to writing plays has been a rather circuitous one – away back in my university days I studied the history of science, and strands of the subject do creep into my plays from time to time; this is most explicitly the case in my new play about Marie Curie. But one of the figures in the history of science whom I find particularly interesting – and dramatic – is Alan Turing, so I was very eager to take the opportunity to get to know him a little better.

I do mention Turing in an earlier play, The Lavender Railroad, though he doesn’t appear as a character. Instead, two of the characters discuss Turing in the context of his breaking the code used by the German Enigma machines in World War II.

The presentation took place yesterday, and while I’m not sure the 30-odd kids in the room were terribly interested in Turing’s and Tutte’s work, I had the great treat of getting to examine and handle a real Enigma machine that happens to reside in the agency’s archives. The historian of science in me was absolutely delighted – how often does an opportunity like that come along?

Is Turing worthy of a play about him? Absolutely – but it’s been done. The play, by Hugh Whitemore, is called Breaking the Code. I had the pleasure of seeing it in the 1980s with Derek Jacobi as Turing.

First Draft

I’m writing a new play.

(Okay, I think that statement is in a state of constantly being true: if I’m not actually writing at this moment I’m certainly thinking about it, or revising something I’ve written, or worrying about the fact that I’m not writing. This is how I spend my days.)

But this particular new play is on my mind at the moment, of course, and I’ll be writing a bit more about it in the weeks to come as well. It’s still very much in its earliest draft – I’m not even sure it’s a first draft. More like a zero-th draft, if you will.

When I was in Ireland last month I had the chance to spend an afternoon with my old writing group at the Derry Playhouse, which is where a good bit of the writing and re-writing of Lavender Railroad took place. It was fun, of course, to see old friends and to make the acquaintance of new writers as well. Someone asked me what I was working on these days, and so I took the bait and explained that I had a new play in its earliest stages.

Without telling anyone present anything more, I proceeded to read the first couple of scenes of the play. This is by nature a terrifying thing to do: it’s the first time anyone outside of my head gets to hear the words. Will it make sense to anyone? Will it amuse? Entertain? Provoke?

To my relief (and delight), the people around the table liked what they heard – and very much “got” what I was trying to do with the piece. And they wanted to know what happened next in the story! This was incredibly reassuring; they were very much a proxy for an audience that will likewise not know what to expect and will likewise (I hope) want to know what happens next.

Of course, I still have a tremendous amount of work to do in making sure that the entire work is reasonably coherent in telling its story, but at least I have some reason to be confident that I’m on the right track. More on this project anon…

Going into Tech

The Ottawa Fringe Festival is about to open and I’m excited that one of the productions being presented is my play Ex Cathedra, part of The Lavender Railroad. The company that’s putting on the show, Troupe de la Lune, approached me about the play when Jer’s Vision put on a staged reading of the play for one of their workshops some months ago.

I haven’t been directly involved with this production, though I’ve met with the people putting it on to answer questions they had about the script, so when I sit down in the Fringe audience a few days from now their work will be as fresh to me as it is to anyone else in the house. But I did drop by their tech rehearsal yesterday just to say hello, and it was great fun to get a sense of what their show will look and sound like, even though I didn’t see (and didn’t want to see) anything from the play itself. It was enough to get a sense of what they wanted to do with their lighting and sound, as well as how they planned to use the space they have.

And speaking of that space … they will be performing in the Léonard-Beaulne studio, which is the same space that the Evolution Theatre production of Lavender Railroad was done in.

For a quick video preview of the production, check out Ottawa Tonite.

The play runs for half a dozen performances during the festival – schedule details are here: