It’s been ten turbulent days since the referendum and outbursts of xenophobia have become the new norm. Polish community centres are getting vandalised, Eastern European shops burned and racial slurs are no longer mumbled but yelled. The rehearsals for the staged reading of Piotr Lachmann’s Hamlet Gliwicki are about to start, and while the times are horrible, the timing couldn’t be better.
This is the third project in the first instalment of Translation, Adaptation, Otherness: Foreignisation in Theatre Practice, a project by University of Kent and Firehouse Creative Productions. The AHRC-funded research explores theoretical and practical, political and ideological issues of theatre translation, and forgoes domestication of plays (i.e. cultural appropriation through translation) in favour of embracing, signposting and staging the different through ‘foreignisation’. Catherine Love and Diana Damian Martin have already written about the project and its underpinnings in depth; it’s worth reminding that the research started with staged readings of plays written in three most spoken foreign languages in the UK – Spanish, French and Polish.
In Hamlet Gliwicki, a play born out of invisible but omnipresent differences, Translation, Adaptation, Otherness found a perfect match. The text traces back the story of how a protestant German boy called Peter had to be re-named Piotr, re-baptised catholic and re-born Polish when his hometown of Gleiwitz became Gliwice after the Second World War. Seventy-odd years later, Lachmann, the boy in question, is still negotiating his identity, unable to be ‘just’ Polish or ‘just’ German, and struggling to forgive his family – his father for being a German soldier and his mother for abandoning Germany. The text is a meditation on national identity, an attempt to mobilise decades of deliberation and centuries of cultural heritage – from Oedipus and Shakespeare, via wartime German schlagers to Tadeusz Różewicz – into one final self-reckoning. Like its author, Hamlet Gliwicki is neither Polish nor German, but quintessentially European, and therefore impossible to domesticate. In the wake of the referendum, its mere presence is a reminder that theatres can talk about Europe without succumbing to daily politics. Yet, if it were not for an academic project, this play would have almost certainly never found its way to a British stage – thanks in no small part to all those hefty European references.
Any trepidations that reference density would fly over the audience’s heads would not be without its merits. Hamlet Gliwicki is a text that, for most, warrants reading with google at the ready. Midway through the four-day rehearsal period, I find theatre academia and theatre practice working together to get to a common understanding of the text’s reference points. Director Arne Pohlmeier and actors Kudzi Hudson and Tonderai Munyevu rely on expert deciphering of the relevant history and linguistic conundrums from the academic side of the room: translator Aneta Mancewicz, project leader Margherita Laera and research associate Flora Pitrolo.
Asking questions is easy to do in rehearsals; in performance, there will be no space for the audience to pause, research and clarify. The point is not lost on Pohlmeier and the actors, who spend much of the day considering how to explain the many references to the audiences, occasionally stopping to wonder if explanations are necessary in the first place. The team briefly toys with the idea of including a programming note for the audience to read; someone suggests that as long as the actors know what they’re saying the audience will be able to pick up on the meanings too. A dramaturgical option is also on the table: adding scenes in which Hudson and Munyevu improvise ‘private’ conversations similar to those that happened in rehearsals, as they fought their way through the play. The conversation makes apparent that in a theatre culture so reliant on domestic writing and domestication there is little established thinking on representing the other and no instinctive solution to the problem. What exists, however, is a strong belief that the audiences, unaccustomed to such levels of unfamiliar cultural tropes, might be alienated.
These fears float around the rehearsal throughout the day as Pohlmeier, Hudson and Munyevu search for a practical, theatrical methodology for the theoretical method proposed by the project. Though no one ever utters the word ‘accessibility’, some suggestions – like the programming note – would make the experience easy for the audience, while essentially admitting there is no theatrical way to suck the viewers into a world as remote from their own as Hamlet Gliwicki’s. Still, domestication never penetrates the discussion. One of the reasons may be that the team assembled in the room is so international it would induce panic attacks amongst the staunchest of Brexiters. The director is German, the two actors were born in Zimbabwe, and Italy, Poland, and the UK all have their representatives. First-hand experiences of immigration and disenfranchisement are abundant, but perhaps even more importantly, British shorthands are simply not a common cultural denominator. A multicultural company of collaborators necessitates an intercultural framework; as I leave I consider the fact that domestication might be trickier to pull off if the artistic and programming teams of major theatres were more representative of the demographics that surround them.
Two days later, there are no large sections of improvised material and no programming notes at the rehearsed reading. Instead, Pohlmeier has created a rough sketch of a performance that draws its language from the play’s metatheatrical nature. The text of Hamlet Gliwicki sees two ‘characters’ known only as he and she take on the roles of the playwright and his mother, Hamlet and Gertrude, and two actors in rehearsals. In the performance, Hudson and Munyevu use different sections of the playing space and different props to transfer from one role to another. The scenography brings elements of a dilapidated, burned down theatre onto the stage, actors venture into audience seats and theatre mechanisms are visible for the most part. The condensed rehearsal period and other production realities mean that much of the visual dramaturgy remains coarse and devoid of nuance, but the intention to guide the audience through the play’s complicated structure through nonverbal means is clear.
The draft nature of the reading however doesn’t just influence the visual polish; it resonates through the actors’ visibly challenging negotiation of Lachmann’s poetic prose. The post-show discussion, led in large part by audience questions, is therefore primarily focused on the language, quickly identified as the biggest barrier for both audiences and the cast. For Mancewicz and Bryce Lease, the two translators, foreignisation meant staying true to the Polish syntax and disinterest in punctuation, and even opting for more literal translation of idioms. The English version of Hamlet Gliwicki is therefore instantly identifiable as a translation, leaving the actors to make due without punctuation as a roadmap to stage speech, and forcing the audience to focus most of their attention on listening, rather than watching.
What sounds like a rather technical discussion puts forward important questions for the project itself. If domestication risks neutralising the other, foreignisation of this kind risks pointing the finger at artificial differences. Respecting the rhythm, rules and nature of English is not the same as appropriation; preserving trademarks of other languages could easily be constructed as a confession that foreign things are so different they will always sound and feel odd and be beyond the reach of understanding.
That doesn’t mean the method employed by Mancewicz and Lease isn’t a much needed experiment in non-domesticating ways of translating. The version of the text I received was filled with translators’ comments, revealing the attention to linguistic, cultural and historic detail afforded to every single line. In the context of theatre however, this can only ever be one part of the equation. The translation of Hamlet Gliwicki is a work of nuance; the performance of Hamlet Gliwicki could not have been more than a good first draft. To move past the language alone, achieve the same level of nuance on paper and on stage, projects like this need longer devising time – to decide what the specificity of the translated text means on stage, develop a rich theatrical vocabulary and explore the full scope of cultural representations: staging foreignness, rather than saying foreignness.