Lost in translation

With a piece of good writing, I always thought the words would shine through… but now I’m not so sure – I’ve discovered they can sometimes get lost in translation.

Years ago, I saw Yasmina Reza’s award winning ‘Art’ during its long run in the West End with three really charismatic actors, (Michael French, Stephen Tompkinson and James Fleet). I thought it was a brilliant piece of work; one of the best plays I’d seen. This continued to be my impression until some years later an amateur production totally changed my opinion of the play: it made me think the writing was not actually very good. And now I don’t know; I’ll have to read it again to find out whether I think it was good actors who made a fairly competent bit of writing sparkle, or whether it was a set of indifferent actors who made a marvellous bit of writing dull.

More recently, I saw a ‘Romeo and Juliet’ that just bored me rigid. I’ve seen versions of R+J several times and haven’t had this reaction before. I don’t think the actors in this particular production were all that bad. I just think they and the director were inexperienced, with several moments reminiscent of a sixth form production.

Maybe one of the problems with performing Shakespeare is the poetry and poetic prose. If you don’t ‘pronounce it trippingly off the tongue’ and just focus on making it rhyme, it sounds stilt-ed. And maybe this is where the young cast and director fell down.

As a practising playwright, you have to rely that the creative team will do justice to your baby, or be content to let it wander off on its own for your small stipend. Unless you are perhaps one of two big-name playwrights in the UK whose work is seen as sacrosanct, it is likely to wander off on its own, or be dragged screaming and kicking down another path entirely. You want to get your work on, but there are often enormous compromises to make.

I think there must be something a little magic about acting. When it’s good you don’t notice the words, it just all comes together as a great piece of work, but when it’s bad the words go all wrong and make the play unravel.

Even when it’s the same words… it’s baffling.

About 17Percent

A campaign to get more plays by women playwrights onto UK stages.
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