Translations: more than words

Publicity image from Translations: man and woman in field, reaching out hands ot each other

Brian Friel’s Translations is a play that works on money levels to portray Ireland under British rule – until a final confusing 20 minutes.

On the interweb, as a companion to the legendary/controversial Crap Towns is the Crap Map of the British Isles. Highlights include Northern Scotland (marked at “Winter”), a group of Home Counties around Buckinghamshire (“Tories”), my own north-east England (“Rust”) and London (“Hipsters, Bankers and Riots”). The Republic of Ireland, however, is summarised quite concisely with “It’s Complicated” (and Northern Ireland gets “It’s Very Complicated”). If, however, you want someone to expand on just how complicated it is, a good point of reference is Brian Friel’s classic play Translations, which toured to Northern Stage. I partly saw this as an apology to the Rose Theatre Kingston (who produced the play in partnership with English Touring Theatre), whose play I considered and rejected on my last London visit in favour of another play I bitterly regret choosing. But I’m glad I chose to see this one.

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Ibsen, Glaspell, and the test of time

It’s a lottery as to whether a play you wrote still appeals generations later. Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts has stood the test of time well; less so for Susan Glaspell’s Springs Eternal.

Playwrights have different ways of measuring success. A big-hitter on the West End might measure success in ticket sales. A resident playwright at a subsidised regional theatre might measure success by the number of four- and five-star reviews in local papers. A pretentious and incomprehensible playwright might measure success by the approval they receive from other pretentious incomprehensible playwrights, who of course know better than anyone else, and a student group in wild overestimation of their own abilities might measure success by the number of plugs given by their mate who edits the theatre column on their student paper. But I firmly believe that what most playwrights really want is for people to look back at their plays, years or decades later, and say to each other “Wasn’t that good?”

If you want future generations to revere your work, the obvious thing you have to do is write something that’s good and preferably original. That’s firmly in your hands. But there is something else you have to do: you have to write something that people in the future relate to. And that is very much out of your hands and instead is pure guesswork. We cannot possibly predict how plays written today will fare in the 22nd century. But we can look back at plays written generations ago and see how they fare today. And from my recent theatre binge in London, I have two prime examples of old plays with differing fortunes.

Mrs. Alving and Osvald in GhostsThe play that stands the test of time better is Ghosts, by Henrik Ibsen. Ibsen in a 19th-century playwright, probably best known for A Doll’s House, a play was about a woman stuck in a marriage that looks happy on the outside but miserable on the inside. At first glance, this plot seems ordinary and unoriginal, until you look at the historical context of the time, where even contemplating the possibility that a marriage is less than okey-dokey was a scandal. Cue uproar from the respectable class – perhaps not the wisest move, because anyone today can tell you that foaming with anger over mildly contentious issues only encourages these people to do it again. But Ibsen’s follow-up, Ghosts, was no shock-for-the-sake-of-shock piece. His own words about the inevitable upcoming furore probably put it best:

Ghosts will probably cause alarm in some circles, but that can’t be helped. If it didn’t, there would be no necessity for having written it.”

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The tragedy version of Hay Fever

Noel Coward is not all light frivolous entertainment. See The Vortex if you don’t believe me.

One of my pet hates is wooden formulaic amdram. This typically involves using the same few authors from the same set list of works deemed to be permissible for amdram. You will often see me write a play off when I go “Oh no, not another bloody Priestley” or “Not a bloody Christie”. And you will often see me put Noel Coward on this list. But that’s not a reflection on Coward itself – only the way his plays are routinely typecast is light farce. He is actually one of the playwrights I have the most respect for. When the rest of the country was united in celebration in 1938, he was one of the few to suggest maybe a deal with Hitler wasn’t such a good idea – and so bagged place on the Nazi death list. His songs went far beyond entertainment like Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage – he could switch between being bitingly satirical and movingly sentimental, and did a few you’d never guess were his.  (And, okay, he eventually became a tax dodger, but let’s skip over that. Tax dodgers weren’t such big hate figures back them.)

The Vortex is one of Coward’s earliest plays, written the same time as Hay Fever. In one way, the two plays have a lot in common. In Hay Fever, the story centres round the Bliss family, all complete drama queens, immersing themselves into one overblown affair after another, with scarcely a real sentiment or emotion amongst them. Likewise, in The Vortex the story centres on Florence and Nicky Lancaster a mother and son very similar to their Hay Fever equivalents. But there is one very important difference between the two. The Bliss family blissfully live in a bubble of self-delusion that no-one or nothing can burst. Not so for the Lancasters. Reality catches up, and when the bubble bursts, it bursts in the cruellest possible way. For Florence is a model/socialite desperately trying not to grow old through affairs with men now as young as her own son. Nicky is slowly wrecking his own life through drugs, lack of ambition, and an ill-considered engagement. And Florence’s husband David, far from living in his own fantasy world, is reduced to a broken man by his wife’s infidelity.

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