Adrian Hamilton: Why do we feel we must turn Chekhov into Noel Coward?

There's a problem in 'versions' rather than translations of foreign plays

Share
Related Topics

No one can say that the British are not international in their theatrical outlook. The place is bursting with foreign plays – from Jean Racine (Phèdre) through Henrik Ibsen (A Doll's House) and Anton Chekhov (The Cherry Orchard) to the contemporary playwrights showcased at London's Gate, and other fringe theatres.

It is not always so. There have been times when London plodded on as if the rest of the world did not exist and the only foreign works worth staging were American musicals. One of the wonderful things at the moment is how the classics of European theatre have come back into fashion. Even Friedrich Schiller has got a look in with his rarely performed Wallenstein.

Just why this is, why quite so many of Shakespeare's works should be playing at the same time and why Ibsen in particular has reasserted his role in the repertory, is worth a study in itself. It must be something to do with our troubled times, and the sense of uncertainty about the future, which makes us return to the "big authors" who also lived in periods when the tectonic plates were shifting and tried to say something about the ruthlessness of politics, the greed of business and the strains of social change. A Doll's House has everything to say about women's role as Wallenstein does about war and the exhaustion of it.

The worrying thing about this modern wave, however, is that almost all the classics now being performed are, in that dreaded word, a "version." They are not direct translations, but one step further removed as directors and authors take the literal translation and then convert it into something more approachable and – another dreaded word – "relevant".

Now, even with Shakespeare and the British classics, there is a modern temptation to update. At its worst it has resulted in an endless reduction of works to long leather coats and monstrous excisions to the text. At its best, in the hands of directors such as Michael Grandage and Sam Mendes, it can completely refresh a text, cast it in a new and more immediate light than fusty traditions would admit.

It is not the updating in production that concerns me. It is the re-interpretation that comes with producing "versions" rather than translations, the interpolation of another mind that implicitly thinks the original needs revising for a British audience.

Take Racine's Phèdre, playing at the National. The verse version on this occasion is by no less a poet than Ted Hughes, and brilliant it is in its own right. But in rewriting the script Hughes instinctively rebalances it towards the sexual passion and the incident suitable to a modern sensibility.

As anyone who saw Cheek by Jowl's recent French-language version of Racine's Andromaque knows – and the company is not one to baulk at modernising the setting – the power of the great French playwright lies in the classical formality of his language. It works through the gathering force of language to portray the human condition in general, not the modern preference for expressing character in a way that the audience can empathise with.

So too Tom Stoppard's version of that staple of the theatre, Chekhov's Cherry Orchard. Stoppard is a marvellously intelligent and supple comic writer but what he does with this play is almost unconsciously turn the Russian writer into Noel Coward. Chekhov's comedy, beloved though it is by British audiences, is actually quite difficult to bring off in this country. As the productions by the Moscow and St Petersburg theatres have shown when they have come over, Chekhov is much more farcical, manic even, than the English way of dealing with him would suggest. Stoppard drains this by downplaying the excessive in favour of the witty.

Even worse has befallen poor Ibsen, virtually all of whose plays have been on display in "new versions" in the last few months. The great Norwegian portrayer of social constraint and its effect on the individual, and the battle of wills between one or the other, has been metamorphosed into his apprentice, GB Shaw; a provocateur of bourgeois convention, a tragedian of the oppressed hero or heroine. That suits the English way of looking at things and the British way of playing parts. But Ibsen is not nearly as one-sided as that. His main characters are deeply flawed, in some ways quite dislikable, and his society much less wrong in all its parts.

This is more than a question of downgrading the translator's role. A "version" is, at heart, a form of colonialism, an act of ownership over a foreign literature. It says that the original is not quite good enough for us. It needs improving to be acceptable to a British audience. The sadness is that we have such good translators in this country. Why don't we use them?

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sauce Recruitment: Retail Planning Manager - Home Entertainment UK

salary equal to £40K pro-rata: Sauce Recruitment: Are you available to start a...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - London - up to £40,000

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Creative Front-End Developer - Claph...

Recruitment Genius: Product Quality Assurance Technologist - Hardline & Electric

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The role in this successful eco...

Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000 QA Tes...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

CPAC 2015: What I learnt from the US — and what the US could learn from Ukip

Nigel Farage
 

If I were Prime Minister: I would create a government that actually reflects its people

Kaliya Franklin
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower