by Marius von Mayenburg
Translated by Maja Zade
Directed by Matthew Dunster
Bath Theatre Royal
Friday 24th February 2017 19.45
Steve John Shepherd – Serge Haulupa, a conceptual artist
Jonathan Slinger – Michael, a doctor
Charlotte Randle – Ulricke, Michael’s wife, assistant to Serge
Brenock O’Connor – Vincent, the teenage son
Ria Zmitrowicz – Jessica Schmidt, a cleaner
We went to see this with an English friend who has lived in Germany for forty-five years, and is bilingual. He was perplexed by the mild laughter, because he said in Germany, the themes, conversations and humour would have had audiences crying with laughter, rolling in the aisles. He said he was back translating some into German in his head too, and it was even funnier. Perhaps it hit catch phrases or cliches, which we would be unaware of.
There was a stylistic gulf, I suspect. The constructivist set worked very well, but the style of a series of tableaux, with characters addressing the audience, and in Serge’s case, both in and out of character is mid-European. I guess Bath’s success with Florian Zeller’s French comedies has them hoping for another run of success with von Mayenburg. However, I was startled to think afterwards that French comedy, from Moliere to Feydau to Zeller’s, translates vastly better to British theatrical taste than German comedy.
Our German-resident friend explained that it was needle-sharp in pinpointing classic German anxieties, and also that it satirised the pre-occupations of German mainstream TV superbly. He also said the five actors succeeded perfectly in “being German” although in English. He quoted not leaving money in cash lying around the house because (a) the cleaner might steal it and (b) the cleaner might think it a test of her honesty and be offended, a fascinating double bind, that resonates in Britain to0. The attempt by Ulricke to explain it to the cleaner was very funny as she wound herself up in knots was great stuff in any language.
He explained the German obsession with deodorants and deodorant advertising made Ulricke’s complaints that Jessica the cleaner “stinks” so funny. I can’t see an Englishwoman saying the same about a cleaner. He said Germans are worriers. They worry about so many things, from smells to offending the help to sexual intercourse, and this nailed it .There was an added dimension that flew straight past us. Jessica was from Halle (which meant nothing to me) … but it means that she was an Ossi, an East German … hence the prejudice about her body odour from Ulrike, a middle class Wessi, or West German. Probably the German version gave her a distinctive East German accent … Serge refers later to her being East German. That whole Ossi (East German) v Wessi (West German) aspect was lost because the translator stuck fast to the original context. To get the same reaction (shocked at the prejudice) you’d have to make Jessica a member of a maligned group in Britain. I’m not sure that one fits in the same way.
I had reservations on the translation, finding it stilted at times, and also we don’t say “Doctors without Borders” in Britain, do we? I always hear it as Médecins Sans Frontières on the news. This marvellous organisation is so renowned that we do not translate it from its original French. I admit Wilipedia says it’s also known as “Doctors without borders” … but not by me. Also, having the young cleaner calling the early 40s Ulricke “madam” just does not ring at all true in English. In this sort of liberal elite family it would invariably be first names. I’m sure the translator knew that, but wanted to maintain the German context. There were other false notes that made my “literal translation” sensors quiver. I did not think it was a native English speaker translating. And it wasn’t.
The publicity talks a great deal about a “food fight.” It puts the thrown spaghetti on the programme cover too. It was very mild, and totally dwarfed by the magnificent food fight in Rules For Living by Sam Holcroft (National Theatre 2015)
The cast of five all shone.
Maybe the stilted impression came from the fact that it was satirising Serge’s earnestness, but Serge is always on a razor’s edge between utter claptrap and genuine social commentary. I guess a conceptual artist has to be earnest. Steve John Shepherd has charisma. I thought he came off well, my friend thought him too handsomely charismatic and that the real artist would be weirder looking and older. I didn’t see that. I certainly didn’t pick up his references to the specialist Documenta arts exhibition nor to the arts / fashion events in Dusseldorf. My friend said they touched the right intellectual buttons.
Jonathan Slinger was so major in the RSC’s three re-opening seasons from 2011 to 2013. He took the really huge roles, Macbeth, Hamlet, Prospero, Malvolia, Paroles, then disappeared for three years as Willy Wonka in Charlie & The Chocolate Factory. He was a real “Whatever happened to …” actor, as the RSC’s major star for a time. Mind you, my grandkids saw Charlie & The Chocolate Factory and enjoyed it so much, it hopefully helped establish a love of theatre. As we noted from the front rows watching Slinger’s Hamlet, he has subtlety that benefits from being close up. He plays the weak well-meaning doctor, Michael. He has to go from pitiful whimpering to sclerotic rage, and it was a superb performance. My other companion said he was so “real” that you didn’t regard him as “funny.” Let’s hope he won’t disappear into a mega West End production again for a while.
Ria Zmitrowicz as Jessica, the Young cleaner, was outstandingly good. Her deadpan “I don’t imagine anything while I’m working” was so English too, as were her short, laconic replies … she was just “not involved” in Ulricke and Michael’s angst. As the actor’s name is Polish, I wondered briefly that they could have made her Polish, but somehow that wouldn’t work in the UK. The Poles are generally well-liked. We have not an equivalent of the East German / West German issue. Both Italy and Spain have stronger regional prejudices too, running along historic borders, which in the case of Italy (1870) and Germany (1870 and 1989) are not old in British terms. That’s why Wales from Shakespeare on was the butt of stage humour … a national border, rather than a region. But even so, I can’t think a British writer would refer to the Welsh in the way Ulrike does the East.
Charlotte Randal’s Ulrike inevitably found she’d driven herself into corners with her efforts not to sound patronising to Jessica. Fabulous contrasting description of sex with Michael … contrasting with Michael’s description of sex with Ulricke.
I am aware that we were seeing the second night, but with such a highly-accomplished cast, I felt they had it absolutely polished in any case. There were maybe two or three mild hesitations on lines, but this made it sound more “real” in English and less stilted
I’m sure they decided to maintain the German setting and characters, and to eschew a freer translation and cultural Anglicization. Why not? They changed the title from A Piece of Plastic (Stücke Plastik). They had a completely different set concept. But as far as text went, they were faithful to the play, but this might not help its reception.
While we enjoyed it, our perceptions were greatly enriched by our friend’s interval and post-show explanations. There might be a different solution. When I write simplified versions of classics for foreign learners of English (a kind of translation) I often add lines to explain cultural points. I frequently suggest plays could be shorter. Here I think a few additional lines might help us British audiences to understand more of the subtext.
Yet again, no credits even when two minutes of a song on the soundtrack held our attention. I find that unforgivable, but now virtually universal in British theatre’s. Sixteen Tons was one. It was written by MERLE TRAVIS everyone. And yes, he deserves his name in the programme. One powerful song must have played for 90 seconds, and the voice sounded like Beyoncé. I really wanted to know what the song was so I could seek it out (do comment if you know it).
OTHER LINKS ON THIS BLOG
Macbeth, RSC 2011 as Macbeth
The Tempest RSC 2012 as Prospero
Comedy of Errors RSC ’12 as Dr Pinch
Twelfth Night RSC 2012 as Malvolio
Hamlet RSC 2013 as Hamlet
All’s Well That Ends Well RSC 2013 as Paroles