Tuesday, 17 July 2012

A Shakespeare in Every Playwright...


Last night we popped over to Stratford-Upon-Avon because we'd been offered a £5 deal on tickets for a new play at the Swan, A Soldier in Every Son On the whole, I like to be supportive of new writers' work, and I know that there are some fabulous and very under-appreciated playwrights out there. That said, anywhere other than the Royal Court in London, which seems to always get the best of the best in new writing, seeing new plays can be a bit of a hit and miss experience. The last time I saw something by a playwright I'd never heard of before in Stratford, it was breathtaking. That was Helen Edmundson's The Heresy Of Love. We'd got a similar deal on these tickets (they often do this for early, pre-press night performances, which are harder to fill up), and, much like last night, I didn't really know what to expect. I was absolutely blown away and came out of the theatre alternately weeping at the story's devastating ending, and raving about the production as a whole. It wasn't long after that that Edmundson's name cropped up again when I went to see her adaptation of Swallows and Amazons at the Belgrade in Coventry, which was similarly impressive if rather different in tone. Discounting the regular non-Shakespeare Christmas productions they have on in the RSC theatres, however (all of which I've seen – The Arabian Nights, Matilda and The Heart of Robin Hood - have been brilliant), the last original play I'd seen before that was Nathalia Vorozhbit's The Grain Store, which I didn't really enjoy at all (although that was more a question of taste than of quality).

To be fair to A Soldier in Every Son, there was a lot to enjoy about it, as there is with pretty much every RSC show. The design was beautiful, the make-up and costumes particularly spectacular. The acting, too, was exemplary. There were some familiar faces: several members of the brilliant cast from Richard III  (which I saw back in May), including Brian Ferguson, who's definitely one to watch, and Iain Batchelor, who, good as he is, now seems a bit wrong to me in any role other than that of Henry VII. You'd be hard pushed to find a more perfect bit of casting in anything – looking at him, I could swear he secretly is a Tudor. There were also some new people who impressed me, particularly Alex Waldmann, who stole the show as both Prince Ixtlixochitl, and later his son, Nezahualcoyot. In fact, the actors worked so hard and performed so well, that I did honestly feel for them during the rather half-hearted applause at the end of the show.

Where it fell down, I felt, was not in the acting or direction, but rather in the script. Often, the work that script-writers do isn't particularly well-recognised – still less so on screen than on the stage – and can be seen to be of secondary importance to the success or failure of a show overall. Unfortunately, however, the proof to the contrary is in the production: where one or two weaker actors can easily be overshadowed by other, better ones, if a script's not quite up to scratch, even if it's more or less “okay”, it always reflects badly on everyone. I couldn't say for certain what went wrong with this one. Since the playwright is actually Mexican, what we saw was, of course, an English version of his play, which may or may not reflect the original writer's choices and intentions. The story worked well enough, I guess. It's not quite to my taste, that Henry VI-esque circularity with battle after battle after battle, but even then you can get away with it with a few big personalities. Shakespeare had his Gloucester (later Richard III) and his Margaret. I'm not quite sure whom A Soldier in Every Son had (again, I stress, no fault of the actors'). More bothersome than that, however, was the standard of the dialogue, which not only clunked along in general, but also seemed constantly unsure of its register. At times, it was clearly aiming for the kind of heightened language that Shakespearean play-goers are accustomed to. It wasn't verse, but in these particular moments, it was going for big, stand-out and formal-speech-worthy words. For me, it never quite made it there. There was no great linguistic flair, no sparkling originality. It all felt rather tired and familiar. So much for the higher register. The rest of the time, it was even more frustrating. Most of the dialogue slouched along in a much more banal and hackneyed fashion. Even the most important characters spoke in a purely functional and ordinary way, with bouts of excessive swearing being used to extract cheap laughs from the audience. Don't get me wrong, I'm not someone who has a problem with expletives in general – but if you're going to use them, do it sparingly and creatively. And you'd do well to remember that, even in a relatively modern setting, it is possible to come up with some pretty epic insults without using any swearing at all. But it was more than that. Any writer worth their salt knows that, even when you want to give the impression of people talking like ordinary people, you don't actually, write dialogue the way people would speak in everyday life. It has to be better than that, much more condensed. Real people talk rubbish. They say things that are boring, mundane, repetitive, and often leading nowhere. If you try to get people doing that in a production, everything will seem to take forever and just be interminably dull. In a script, even the simplest and most ordinary-sounding lines need to be well-crafted – inventive, but to the point. Watch an episode of anything half-decent on TV and try to imagine yourself and your friends and family speaking to each other like the characters do. It doesn't happen. Of course, in a production that makes some attempts at more poetic language, the really obvious, pedestrian exchanges stick out even more than they would otherwise, and still more so in the mouths of particular characters in certain settings.

I'll readily own that I'm no expert on medieval America, but I reckon I can say with some certainty that its society was one that very much stood on ceremony. People in Britain today have a lot less regard for language than they have ever had before. Not because our vocabularies are more limited, or because we're stupid, or modern, but simply because we've done away with most of the cultural formalities and status distinctions which, when put in practice, quickly become embedded in language. Other countries still have these – even countries very near to our own. In France, there are still formal and informal addresses (“vous” or “tu” where we just have “you”), though I have French-speaking friends who tell me that these are going out of fashion. Some languages, such as Japanese, have so many levels of distinction and politeness that it's very easy, as a foreigner, to accidentally insult someone. But, even here and now, where it's less important to us, we still expect certain people to speak in certain ways. You'd be surprised, for example, if dear old Queen Liz came out effing and blinding in public - remember the fuss that was kicked up back in 2007 when she got a bit huffy about sitting for her picture? And that was nothing, really. Even from politicians, we expect a certain amount of decorum, particularly when they're giving important public speeches. However the Nahuatl language is itself constructed, the best way to convey a sense of another, older and more formal culture is to manipulate conventions of the language you're actually working with. I'm not saying I expected people to be theeing and thouing and and-it-please-youing, but I'd have to say honestly that it rang a little false for me when the Tepanec ruler was calling people fucking fuckers and shouting about his potential son-in-law's bell-end in front of a room full of people. Just saying.

If these problems were endemic in the original Spanish script, it's a real shame because, as Luis Mario Moncada explains in this interview, it's a largely ignored and very under-investigated historical period. Even in Mexico, people don't really learn about their country's pre-conquistadore past, and there's very little creative literature or art set in or based around that time. Given this wealth of unmined material - which really ought to be a writer's dream - I did wonder what exactly was the point of all the Shakespeare. I mean, sure, he's the most famous historical playwright worldwide, but that doesn't mean you have to copy him to do anything worthwhile. I don't really have any issues with writers borrowing from other writers – nowadays it's necessary, of course – but, what I did find annoying were a number of scenes which were less “homage” than direct lifts from Shakespeare's texts. For example, there was one point at which Ixtlixochitl and his friend, Tochitzin, act out a little play of their own in the roles of the prince and his father. To qualify: this wasn't loosely based on Hal and Falstaff in 1 Henry IV, it was Hal and Falstaff in 1 Henry IV, and unnecessarily so. Admittedly, this scene struck me particularly since I'd been watching Part 3 of The Hollow Crown just the night before (more on that later), but it's an iconic scene, which was neither cleverly and subtly referenced, nor re-done in an interesting and original way, nor particularly significant to the plot of A Soldier in Every Son. I like the idea of comparing countries' histories, because, as I've said before, I like to think that, fundamentally, people are people wherever and whenever you go, but I'm afraid that was taking the “borrowing” a little too far to seem worthwhile.

If, on the other hand, the bulk of the problems came from the translators, then what were they doing? Going for word-perfect accuracy? That's not how you translate. Unless you're working with poetry (where, of course individual word choice and order is crucial – hence verse is more or less untranslatable), the best method is to get the gist of the story and the characters, and re-write everything from there. It will be different, it will be a new piece of work, rather than a true copy, but that's always been the case, and it's part of the fun of the process.

All said, I'd have to be fair to everyone involved and say it's worth a look, for the quality of the performance itself. It's not bad – there's certainly a lot worse out there that people pay a lot more money to see. I guess part of the problem is one of expectation. I still get very excited about RSC productions, because they're almost always dazzling. And, I'm afraid, this one just didn't quite live up to the standard set.

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