Polyphony (and translation)

I find it funny (though not very surprising, to be honest) that even though I am technically done with the “researching live shows” part of my dissertation, I still feel a tiny hint of a panic when I haven’t managed to do a write-up almost immediately following a thing I have seen.

 

 

Then again, this could also have something to do with the fact that I saw three shows this weekend (Thursday, Saturday and Sunday).

 

 

As usual, I will likely devote a lot more time to one of these (hint: the third one) than the others, but that is only because that one involved not only a return to my favorite theatre in the city (one whose somewhat problematic aspects I also need to reckon with somewhere…here a bit first perhaps, then maybe my dissertation conclusion…there is something coming together in my head as to how I am going to attempt to tie everything I am doing together to form a semi-coherent piece of work, though its potential influence and contribution to the field will remain…unknown…uncertain…anyway) but also a collaboration between one of my favorite playwrights working today and a theatre troupe that I have also come to admire since moving back here.

 

 

But before I get to all that, a quick round-up of the other two things I saw this weekend.

 

 

 

Thursday, September 19: Farm Fatale, dir. Philippe Quesne, Nanterre-Amandiers

 

 

I’ve written a couple of times on the particularities of Quesne’s theatre here on this blog, on its diorama-esq esthetic, where clear narrative is more or less eschewed for observation of human (or non-human, see La Nuit des taupes) interactions in a set circumstance. His newest piece for the Amandiers largely keeps with the focus on the nature of communion/community-making, though here the thematic and narrative purposes are a bit more explicit.

 

 

 

In short, Farm Fatale is a play about ecology, its message summed up rather succinctly in a sign carried in by one of the characters (whose text has also been transformed into a hashtag for the show’s publicity campaign): No Nature, No Future.

 

 

The main characters here are a group of five scarecrows, four of whom run a sort of pirate radio out of what was once their farm, and the fifth who joins them after his farmers—who also used to transport him to protests—died by suicide.

 

 

Yes, that is a bit dark, but to be honest, the show as a whole was a lot more lighthearted than that—even if that lightness came with an obvious warning as to the fragility of it all.

 

 

As noted in the program—and as becomes incredibly evident very quickly—nothing on the stage is, materially-speaking, natural. The hay bales the fifth scarecrow carries in with him, and that the others use to set up a sound stage, are made of synthetic material, the birdsong that opens the show is pointedly noted as coming from a tape recorder, a bird flying in the studio is plastic, its wings fashioned out of delicate crepe paper, and the scarecrows themselves approach an almost terrifying (and yes, before they started speaking, it could have gone either way) medium between the Uncanny Valley and Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre with the grotesque, exaggerated masks they wore over their faces and the lumpy bodysuits under their costumes suggesting being stuffed up with hay. It is, in brief, a notable separation from nature, with the synthetic there as a reminder, an image, a sign, of what once was, but that has become so removed from its own cycles and so reappropriated/modified into our own that it has lost the sense of what it was before we (humanity) started irreversibly messing with it. Funnily, the scarecrows, objects “not of nature” created by humans for the sake of protecting the crops from that which could harm them become, here, those same crops’ only visible advocates (the only “human” presence is an offstage character whose farm neighbors that of the scarecrows, and who the latter spot spraying chemicals on his crops. Their first solution: they should kill him…their second: they should scare him through the art of music, namely a very clean/could show up on a kids’ program but still vaguely intimidating rap song).

 

 

 

But the very evident social/political message aside (and yes, it is very obvious what the piece advocates for), what is touching here is how…not shitty these scarecrows were to each other. Everyone just kind of worked together and took to each other with an ease you don’t really see on stage anymore (or in too much media outside perhaps of child-centric programs). When the newcomer enters the stage and asks to join the group—he mentions he is a fan of their radio—the others let him in willingly, giving him something to do almost right away and teaching him how to get on in his new surroundings without being overly nasty. I’ll be honest, I’m not a very big proponent of the whole “kindness is the answer” schtick—and to go further, if something like this were  to try and be implemented in the real world, there are several intersecting issues that would have to be contended with first before this vision of equal understanding can even begin to be conceived of—but I think maybe it was something about the mix of childlike curiosity with the very adult subject (there were a couple of jokes involving bees mating that made it very clear that this might not be for children) that made this utopian vision almost, temporarily work. No nature means no future for all, when one gets down to it.

 

 

 

Saturday, September 21: Trust/Shakespeare/Alléluia dir. Dieudonné Niangouna, MC93

 

 

I am going to preface this one by saying that I spent my entire afternoon prior to heading out to see this show at a picnic, and because of that, I was a bit exhausted during the first half. Thankfully, I got some coffee in me during the short intermission before completely succumbing to sleep, and honestly, better to have been awake during the second half of this show (which was much stronger than the first).

 

 

In short, the piece is very loosely structured around seven “vignettes”, though each one flows into the other to the point that the clear distinction between where one starts and another begins can be a bit hard to spot. At the center of each vignette is a character taken from Shakespeare, though in name only, as the language they speak is decidedly modern. They have been transposed (and transformed in some cases…for instance, Hamlet is now a revenant admonishing over his failed relationships – and not just with Ophelia) into this ‘non-space’ to talk – or rather, exorcise their inner demons. There is a notable voodoo influence on the part of some of the staging, with chorus members who are not currently incarnating characters taking on the role of “witches” (as noted on the cast list), and a performer in the role of Puck acting as the conductor or master of ceremonies.

 

 

There is also a psychiatrist, a Dr. Serge. He, supposedly, is there to “cure” our characters, to make them “better”. He also has the personality and zeal of a cheesy gameshow host.

 

 

With the modern linguistic transposition, however, came also a situational one, as each character was also, to a degree, taken out of his (first half) or her (second half) original Shakespearean setting. This is perhaps where, for me, some of the divide between the first and second half started, as the women (whose narratives were largely centered after the first half) seemed to have more defined settings (as well as characteristics in general) to “carry” their pieces. The exception for the men, in my opinion, was director Niangouna himself playing King Lear as a wanderer in a metro station. Somehow the situational juxtaposition seemed very right in that case.

 

 

And again, who knows, maybe if I hadn’t been so tired, I would have been a bit more alert and my opinions would have been different. In any case, there is something to be said here about the act of (re)interpreting classic and/or “established” texts or characters, which will bring me to my final bit of show commentary for this post:

 

 

 

 

Sunday, September 22: The Way She Dies, written by Tiago Rodrigues in collaboration with TG Stan, Théâtre de la Bastille.

 

 

 

Oh, it was so good to come back here again.

 

 

I’ll be honest, I was a bit worried I wouldn’t be able to get tickets for this show, considering who was involved in it, and considering I had waited until August before buying my ticket (it sounds early, but for this collaboration, I was definitely pushing it). Thankfully, I managed to snag a place before the whole run sold out, and thank goodness I did because any chance I can get to see anything Tiago Rodrigues is doing I will 100% take it.

 

 

 

I mean, almost two years ago, a piece of his reminded me why it was that I loved theatre so much at a time when I was starting to doubt everything I was doing (this was right before I definitively wrote my prospectus and finalized the direction my project would take).

 

 

 

And him working in collaboration with TG Stan (a Belgian troupe who I also discovered at the Bastille) is almost as perfect a thing as one can get, as far as the current theatre scene is concerned.

 

 

 

The piece itself is an adaptation of sorts of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, but not necessarily a direct book-to-stage one. The text itself (in the literal, physical form) figures quite prominently in the staging, and those who have read it (or are at all familiar with the plot) will recognize the parallels between its central plot and the intrigues happening on stage rather early on, yet as a whole, this is more a piece about language, communication, about the individual relationship one has (or can have) with a text—and consequently with a piece of theatre itself, what with the whole emancipation of the spectator thing to consider—than anything else. The Way She Dies refers not only to Anna’s final act of (spoiler?) throwing herself in front of a train, but the different possibilities of narrating, describing, or communicating the process leading up to and including this act, especially when taking into consideration the act of translation that has to happen first before the act of communicating can even begin.

 

 

 

I have read both Anna Karenina and War and Peace, and one of the things I distinctly remember about the process of acquiring the books themselves was how much time I spent researching translations. There is quite a vibrant conversation—at least in the English-speaking world, though I’m sure it’s also reflected elsewhere—around the history of translations of Tolstoy’s works, and especially the, we can call it, acceptance of Constance Garnett’s translations as definitive (which, look translation is incredibly difficult but omitting a word or phrase because you can’t quite understand it? Really?). It’s a conversation worth having, however, because the work of a translator (and indeed, their point of view/interpretive perspective) can have a significant impact on the way the work itself is read by this target audience. There is, as Rodrigues points out in his program notes, a difference between “the candle is put out” and “the lights go out” when confronted with a phrase that evokes a general idea of a removal of light.

 

 

And the question of translation is taken even further when one considers the differing origins of both Rodrigues (who is Portuguese) and the troupe (who hail from the Flanders region of Belgium). Given how Rodrigues often does not work on a script until after rehearsals have begun (though the germ of an idea can be there), as well as how TG Stan often works from a written text, the need for some common ground, linguistically, was needed. Both parties, however, spoke French (TG Stan often performs in French). As for why Anna Karenina was chosen as a central text from which to work, the idea, as summarized from the show program, came about when considering literary works that left a mark, so to speak, that lingered. Acknowledging the fact that Tolstoy’s novel came later, Rodrigues also referred back to his previous work adapting Madame Bovary (the resulting show, Bovary, is still one of my favorites I have seen since I’ve moved back), another work of literature (written by a man…and one who likes to moralize a bit) about a woman who attempts an existence beyond that which her station/her time period/etc. has doled out for her. Anna, he imagined, would be the kind of character that Emma Bovary would have loved to read about.

 

 

Of course, Anna Karenina was not originally written in French (even though French figures somewhat prominently in Tolstoy, given its status, at the time, as the language of the aristocracy), meaning that the text that centers in the staging is one that, as a translation, is already one degree removed from the “source” in terms of interpretation. The question of the potential and consequences of transforming text through language has begun even before the play has officially started. The Anna Karenina here is not the ‘original’, but a version that has been filtered through one interpretive lens (and will continue to be filtered through others).

 

 

 

Indeed, a majority of the intrigue—which centers around 2 couples, one in Portugal in the late 1960s, the other in Anvers, Belgium in the modern day—centers around the act of taking a text and reinterpreting it in a way that creates a map of signification decipherable almost exclusively to ourselves. Going further, there is also the question of use of a text that has been visibly previously read and interacted with by someone (so for those like me who often write in their books, your underlines and margin notes are now a maze leading into yourself…maybe…if anyone can decipher them) in order not to extract meaning from a text, but rather to extract the significance attributed to certain passages of a text in order to try and understand the former reader as well as current happenings in one’s own life. But even in this last instance, the text itself goes through a further transformation, becoming a container not of its own significance, but also a roadmap, a means of deciphering (or translating) someone outside of itself.

 

 

If that makes sense.

 

 
Essentially, what this piece does in its constant playing with the process of individual choices in appropriation of a text (whether it be, as above, in its use as a window into someone else, or, in another case, in its use as a means by which to improve one’s language skills, the act of underlining passages here equally speaking to the poetry of the words as they are read by the non-native speaker than the sense of the phrase itself) is demonstrate what the other two of Rodrigues’s pieces I’ve seen imply (or cause) through action: the fracturing, the multiplying of the very idea of ‘meaning’. There is no singular “way” of dying. How Anna “dies” depends on not just the language we read her in, but the context of the reading, our own “why” in why we engaged in the act. In other words, instead of the emancipation of the spectator (which Bovary and last year’s Sopro deal with more openly), here we have something more akin to the emancipation of the reader, a focus on the malleability of the text, of its ability to change (even in competing translations in a single language). There is a moment at the end when all four actors in the piece stand in a line downstage and one by one – first in French, then switching to Portuguese and Flemish with the French translation in surtitles—begin to recount the final passages of the novel, from Anna’s arrival at the train station to her decision to jump and the split moment right before impact when she wonders at what she’s done. The slight shifts and discrepancies in the various retellings are, of course, evident in French when one actor repeats almost the same thing as another, only changing one or two words that alter not so much the general sense of what is being said, but more the image or the metaphor behind the phrase (the candle vs light debate evoked earlier), but they still hold when the actors pass to their native languages, beginning also to more noticeably talk over each other, emphasizing the polyphonic quality of this final speech moment. There is no single voice, no definitive version. There are many.

 

 

 

 

And it is here that I want to come back briefly to something I said earlier about needing to eventually contend with something slightly problematic about this theatre. Again, I love this space. I love that it is independent and has a clear vision for the kinds of theatre it wants to produce. I love its emphasis on the plural, the multiple, the fractured when it comes to questions of meaning. It is something that is not, from my experience, easily or regularly found elsewhere. Yet, this access to a theatre that brings the focus back to the individual as an autonomous entity via the kinds of shows it programs comes at a price. Because it is independent, and thus does not benefit from full or significant State funding (though at the same time, its independence is the reason why its artistic director has been in place for thirty years and why it has the artistic identity that it has), the Bastille is not exactly accessible from a financial point of view. Tickets are still nowhere near as expensive as theatre tickets are in the States, nor are they quite at the levels of ticket prices for private venues, but the fact that the theatre does not have the kind of financial backing necessary in order to be able to offer a more inclusive subscription package (they have a decent one where one can order tickets for 5 shows at a reduced price, but one must pick the shows and dates in advance which, while this is something that I can do, is not necessarily feasible for everyone) means that it has, perhaps in spite of its artistic mission, become somewhat closed off and exclusive.

 

 

 

The other problem—and this goes back to the question of exclusion, but of another kind—is that the majority of things programmed here are from white artists. Now, granted the Bastille doesn’t program as much as, say, the MC93, but this is something of an oversight that merits being looked at (especially considering the venues own stance of the theatre being a place of dialogue—not necessarily a mirror—with the environment that is around it).

 

 

 

 

So, what does one do about this?

 

 

 

To be clear, I actually like the concept of significant State funding for the arts. But, like anything, it may need fixing. In a perfect world, I would say we should just throw money at (almost) all things artistic instead of spending it on enriching the military industrial complex, but…we are not in that world. A healthy State arts funding program would be, then, one that would allow for the contract-based public theatres to continue to exist while making it possible for the independent theatres to increase their spectator accessibility.

 

 

 

Because the kind of artistic expression that allows space for and validates the point of view, the intelligence, the approaches and experiences of each individual spectator is one that should be open to all.

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