our words make worlds

Making New Worlds from Old: The Translation and Transference of Ancient Mythology into Contemporary Hispanic Theatre (and Beyond)

In this blog posts, William Gregory, Ben Naylor, Rosa Andújar, Pedro Víllora and Camila França write about Making New Worlds from Old.

The adoption and adaptation of classical or Biblical myth is common in present-day UK theatre, where many of Britain’s most celebrated playwrights routinely reimagine stories and characters forged in the distant past.  The Greeks, in particular, are seen as an essential part of the contemporary ‘English-language’ theatrical canon, as recent successful productions at the National and Almeida Theatres can attest.

Hosted at the Anatomy Museum, King’s College London, Making New Worlds from Old was a one-day event addressing this practice in the Hispanic theatre tradition, examining the manner in which writers from the Spanish-speaking world readapt tales from the Biblical and ancient worlds for their respective audiences.  Through my own English translations of two such Hispanic plays, we also explored the processes of rendering these same plays into another language for performance for new audiences in other countries:  a case of myth translated, translated.

In The Desolate Prince (El príncipe desolado, 1998), Chilean dramatist Juan Radrigán re-versions the Lucifer and Lilith myth in an exploration of theocratic dogma and intransigence.  In Electra in the Forest of Oma (Electra en el Bosque de Oma, 2014), Spanish playwright Pedro Víllora blends a contemporary Basque forest with the Classical setting of Argos as Electra stands firm to protect her father’s Agamemnon’s memory.

The shape of the day was as follows:  in the morning, working with students from the MA Classical Acting at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama (RCSSD), their course leader Ben Naylor and movement specialist Anna Healey, we explored rehearsing and performing extracts from The Desolate Prince.  The afternoon session began with a sharing of the discoveries from the morning workshop with attendees to the event, and followed by a discussion panel chaired by Dr Rosa Andújar, Deputy Director of Liberal Arts & Lecturer in Liberal Arts at King’s.  Participating in the panel were Professor Catherine Boyle (King’s), Ben Naylor (RCSSD), Anna Healey (RCSSD), Dr Emma Cole (Bristol University), Pedro Víllora and myself.

The afternoon session closed with an interactive translation exercise where all attendees were encouraged to tackle the translations into or out of English of short extracts from contemporary works that readapt myth, using the Radrigán and Víllora as source texts or, for those translating from English, Sarah Kane’s Phaedra’s Love (1996) and Gary Owen’s Iphigenia in Splott (2015).

 In the evening, we reassembled a the Anatomy Museum as audience members, for a rehearsed reading of Electra in the Forest of Oma, produced by the international theatre company [Foreign Affairs] and directed by the company’s co-artistic director, Camila França.

Further below, Ben Naylor, Rosa Andújar, Pedro Víllora and Camila França all share their own reflections on the day.

For my part, as the translator of the two plays in focus, a Visiting Research Associate at King’s, and a member of the Out of the Wings collective, which seeks to bring Hispanic and Lusophone theatre to new audience while exploring the discipline of theatre translation, I was delighted to be able to contribute to this eclectic, multidisciplinary event which brought together so many individuals and institutions with a stake in the themes we were discussing.  Although billed as a one-day event, the work had in fact begun earlier in the week, with the MA Classical Acting students reading and discussing The Desolate Prince at RCSSD and Camila França rehearsing with the company from [Foreign Affairs] – Gavin Duff, Eugenia Low, Anjelica Serra, Craig Talbot and Will Timbers.

Working with the students from RCSSD at the Anatomy Museum on the Friday morning, we focussed on two aspects of translating The Desolate Prince:  first, how to approach choruses.  Echoing Greek-tragic style, Radrigán has a chorus intervene at intervals throughout the play.  Focussing on one chorus in particular, in which a mass of exiles crowds at the gates of Eden, we experimented with how different renderings of the same original text can shape and change their performance, and vice versa.  In particular, how changes in choice of vocabulary, use of rhyme, variation in rhythm and line length, when combined with practical chorus-work techniques, can make for very different versions of the same extract.  Second, we looked to dialogue scenes.  Freely disrupting a scene in which the banished Lucifer reappears to his children at Eden’s walls, we divided the students into two groups, one taking a higher-register approach, sticking to stylistic choices that took the scene in to a more ‘classical’ realm, and the other given free rein to re-translate the play in a knockabout, contemporary vernacular (dubbed ‘the “Eastenders” version’).  Ben Naylor discusses his own reflections on this workshop below.

As a translator who has worked primarily with contemporary works in the more realist mould, working on these extracts in such a collaborative way with practitioners was a revelation.  The students, along with their course leader Ben Naylor and movement specialist Anna Healey, brought a wonderful combination of artistic imagination, respect for the text and sense of play and experimentation that unlocked the extracts and their translations in fascinating ways.  By teaming up with a conservatoire in this way, we were able to place the practice of translating a complex work such as this into a collaborative, performative context, testing the act of translation and reaffirming the place of the translator as one member of a large community of participants (which, ultimately, includes the audience) that make up a mise en scène.  I hope very much to be able to continue exploring the play with these newfound colleagues.

Following the sharing of the work and the discussion chaired by Rosa Andújar (see her reflections on the discussion below), we closed the afternoon with a session in which all attendees were tasked with translating extracts from contemporary plays based on Biblical or classical myth, to or from English.  Thanks again to the eclectic make-up of our group, this session also proved full of surprises:  Sarah Kane’s Phaedra’s Love translated into modern Greek; a discussion of how Iphigenia in Splott, set in Wales, might be reimagined for modern-day Wallonia; and a highly entertaining, tongue-in-cheek re-translation of the same play into Shakespeare pastiche.

Throughout the day, we were also delighted to welcome Pedro Víllora who, as well as being the writer of Electra in the Forest of Oma, teaches at the Real Escuela Superior de Arte Dramático in Madrid.  The event closed with a rehearsed reading of his play, and he shares his reflections on the reading, and on the rest of the event, in his remarks below.  Camila França, who translated the reading, also shares her thoughts.

For me, the great joy of this event was its successful bringing-together, sometimes for the first time, of so many individuals and institutions with a shared interest in the work of international theatre-making but each with their own approaches.  For acting students, scholars, professional performers, directors and writers to share this same space for the day and debate the issues at hand from so many different perspectives was to me indicative of the importance of projects such as Out of the Wings and Language Acts and Worldmaking.  As the reflections below from our fellow participants attest, the impact of this unique event was remarkable, with new academic, creative, international and multi-institutional relationships formed which look set to continue.

Ben Naylor, Lecturer, Course Leader MA Acting Classical, RCSSD

For the 2018 MA Acting (Classical) cohort from Central, the day of workshops and discussions with Kings’ and OOTW on Radrigan’s The Desolate Prince was a memorable and important moment in their training. Questions of translation – both in terms of mediation between languages and mediation of meaning in performance – are central to formulating a progressive conception of the classical theatrical canon; and of course these mediations have immediate effects on an actor’s choices.

Our students are encouraged to carefully consider and compare translation(s) in their encounters with plays from across the classical canon.  It’s an entirely different experience, though, for actors to be a moving part of an engine of translation. Two previous cohorts have, in performing public productions of new translations (of Schiller and Erdman), been able to experience this process in the rehearsal room, and it’s always proved enlightening for both actors and translator. For our 2018 cohort, the work on William Gregory’s brilliant translation of Radrigán – a full reading and workshops with William, movement director Anna Healey and me – put them at the heart of the questions translators consider in an active and practical manner. They have all spoken of the enjoyment of the process and the usefulness of the day.

The workshops took place directly before the cohort started rehearsals for their final public production, The Burial at Thebes, Seamus Heaney’s translation (version? adaptation?) of Sophocles’ Antigone. Encountering in such a direct and physical way the mediations which exist before the actor’s first encounter with their text is always a salutary lesson and a liberating experience; in this instance it was also the perfect limber for grappling with Heaney’s text. Our students go on to make work in many languages, and often in the spaces across and between them; the inter-cultural and inter-linguistic encounters of theatre addressed by this project are close to the programme’s heart. It was a pleasure and a privilege to work with OOTW.

Dr Rosa Andújar, Deputy Director of Liberal Arts & Lecturer in Liberal Arts, King’s College London

At the heart of our day-long event Making New Worlds from Old: The Translation and Transference of Ancient Mythology into Contemporary Hispanic Theatre was a two-part panel featuring academics from Classics and Latin American Studies Departments (Prof. Catherine Boyle, Dr Emma Cole from Bristol, and myself), theatre practitioners Ben Naylor and movement director Anna Healy (both from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama), playwright Pedro Víllora, and professional translator William Gregory. In bringing such a wide range of experts in conversation with one another, the panel provided a unique experience to explore in-depth how ancient myths are transferred and translated to varied and diverse audiences across history, particularly in modern Latin America.

The first part of our panel, entitled Myths Translated, focused on the plays themselves and the general question of why contemporary playwrights would wish to engage with ancient Greek and/or biblical material (elements which might be considered as ‘alien’ or ‘foreign’), especially in present-day Hispanic theatre. We not only explored and discussed potential motivations for both Juan Radrigán (who also wrote a famous adaptation of Euripides’ Medea, Medea Mapuche) and Pedro Víllora in choosing to write plays centred on such material, but we also discussed the general experience of embodying and engaging with these other worlds for practitioners. For this latter issue, it was especially helpful that our conversation took place immediately after the exploration of Radrigán’s The Desolate Prince by the students in the MA Classical Acting course at Central, since we were able to comment directly on the choices that had been made by the students in presenting and acting the play, as well as examine the impact this performance had on our understanding of the drama. Our discussion of the motivations for these playwrights took us far both temporally and geographically, from fifth-century BC Athens to Renaissance Europe, and from the twentieth century Southern Cone of the Americas to the twenty-first century Basque forests. Our wide-ranging conversation was incredibly rich, prompting many questions and commentaries from audience members. We almost had to enforce the planned coffee and tea break!

The second part of the panel was entitled Myths Translated, Translated. Here, we turned to the audiences and performances themselves, i.e., covering both the manner in which these plays (and in general plays that engage with these ‘alien’ and/or ancient material) have been received by various audiences, as well as the practicalities of performing and staging these plays today, especially in translation. This discussion once again benefited from the Central students’ exploration of the Radrigán play as the panellists and the audience considered the impact of both the performance and spoken text upon the spectators. We also considered whether plays that engage with ancient material always ‘work’, i.e. are received well by a viewing audience, especially one which does not have much knowledge or experience of the myths invoked in the play. In this manner, our conversation developed significantly our examination from the previous discussion, and enhanced our general understanding of the routes and frameworks through which myths are able to transfer successfully across time and space. Once again there was an opportunity for audience members to get involved and direct the conversation according to their own interests, which resulted in a fantastically nuanced discussion of the topic.

From my perspective as an academic who specializes in Greek theatre, as well as its modern reception in Latin America, this event was immensely productive. I had been familiar with Radrigán’s work, in particular Medea Mapuche, which transposes the myth of Medea to Chile, and places this controversial protagonist among the Mapuche indigenous people. However, I had no prior experience with The Desolate Prince, nor generally with drama that adapted biblical material, so the presentation by the Central students was a real treat. It was fascinating to see the points of convergence between the transfer of Greek and biblical myths. Though I was not aware of Pedro Víllora’s play, I am acquainted intimately with the myth of Electra’s particular voyage to modern Latin America, having published on Cuban playwright Virgilio Piñera’s ‘revolutionary’ Electra Garrigó. Unlike Antigone, Electra has had few adaptations in Latin America; besides Piñera’s adaptation there is Brazilian Nelson Rordigues’ Senhora dos afogados and also Clamor de sombras by Ecuadorian Ricardo Descalzi del Castillo. However, the former is inspired by O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra, and the latter is essentially a psychological drama about the Freudian Oedipus and Electra complexes. As a result it was a pleasure to see [Foreign Affairs]’s rehearsed reading of Electra in the Forest of Oma, and to witness first-hand how Víllora ‘translates’ and transposes this myth to contemporary Spain.

Pedro Víllora, playwright, lecturer, Real Escuela Superior de Arte Dramático, Madrid

Writers who work with classical models are translators from one time to another, just as others translate from language to another.  This movement through history correlates to the communication between countries and languages; adaptors and translators are an important part of this exciting work of cultural communication and growth.

Attending the Making New Worlds from Old event on 1 June was greatly stimulating from both the academic and artistic points of view. The chance to share in the work of different performing arts practitioners and to take part in this theory- and practice-based discussion in as significant a venue as King’s College London was revelatory of the importance of artistic thought that combines both the emotional and the rational. As we discovered, art of this kind is an extraordinary tool for transmitting impulses that we cannot always explain using strictly logical parameters but that at the same time demand more exploration than an expression based on passion alone can achieve.

Electra in the Forest of Oma recreates the Greek myth from the perspective of the axis of nationalisms which, often using violence, threaten to tear Europe apart.  It is something we see in Italy, where some politicians suggest the expulsion of immigrants; in France, whose postcolonial inheritance is being questioned; in the Balkans, where one can still not talk of a permanent peace; in Spain, which has suffered the violent terrorism of ETA and battles now with the false propaganda of Catalanist supremacism, or in the United Kingdom where the voices against Brexit are fortunately increasing. William Gregory’s splendid translation took on a special relevance in the rehearsed reading directed by Camila França for [Foreign Affairs].  This international and multicultural team was a perfect match for a play that argues for finding our shared interests, for rediscovering the things we have in common, and ultimately for solidarity between individuals, peoples, and nations.

Camila França, Co-Artistic Director, [Foreign Affairs]

One of the reasons I am so passionate about working with world theatre is because, more often than not, it takes me out of my comfort zone, putting me in other people’s shoes, often making me question my own knowledge, worldview and beliefs. Above all, I find exploring work from different cultures than my own teaches me understanding, compassion, much about the human condition and how connected we all are despite our superficial differences.

I have admired Williams translation work for a number of years, so when he invited me to be involved in the rehearsed reading of the Spanish play Electra in the Forest of Oma, I knew I was in for a treat.

This ingenious adaptation of the classical myth was modern, captivating and hugely relevant in today's political landscape. The challenges one might associate with a short-rehearsal window for a 2 hour-long reading, were overcome through the quality of the piece of writing, the ability to work with an amazing group of actors and the connection I felt to the very timely themes of the play.

It was a great experience that we all got much out of, but realistically only allowed us to scratch the surface, leaving me wanting to play and explore more, to go deeper into the text and to truly bring the Forest of Oma off the page.