Yorkshire Playwrights was represented at the 'Culture in Balance - Texts Crossing Borders' Conference in Ljubljana, Slovenia, by Hugh Rorrison, translator and dramatist, and by Ray Brown, dramatist and director.
Hugh Rorrison wrote two accounts of the Conference - the first, which follows, appeared in Plays International, Vol. 13, No. 1, September 1997. Click here to read the second, which was a private Report to Yorkshire Playwrights.
Everybody has heard of the European Union's Cities of Culture (Glasgow, Dublin, Copenhagen); less well known is the EU Cultural Month which channels funding to smaller players in the European game. June was European Cultural Month in Ljubljana, capital of Slovenia.
It's an unspoilt old town is full of Austro-Hungarian echoes, a miniature Vienna. It festooned itself with mobile street sculpture for the event. Diaphanous sails billowed from lamp-posts, a woven archway of string and twigs trailed from a footbridge into the river where undulating lengths plastic bobbed like a flotilla of neon-coloured alligators. The magnificent art nouveau dragons that guard the main bridge the provided the logo for the festival.
There was the European Print Biennale, there were jazz, pop and classical concerts in the open air. Tito Poente conducted his salsa band the night I was there.
A conference on 'Culture in Balance - Texts Crossing Borders' brought theatre people - writers, directors, editors, actors, publishers, professors, administrators - from 26 countries between Iceland and Kazakhstan to Ljubljana to think of ways to enable successful plays in the lesser European languages to penetrate the major language areas (English, German and French in that order).
Correspondents in 23 countries had been invited to submit a profile of play-writing in their country now, and this useful compendium of contemporary writers, plays, subjects, trends and promotional arrangements provided a basis for discussion.
Holland spearheads the movement to promote minor language plays. The idea of a central bank of plays was discussed. A European drama home page on the Internet with data about say six new plays from each country per annum was suggested. Yorkshire Playwrights agreed to look at this idea for incorporation in their home page.
Looking at existing schemes to promote the international exchange of dramatic work, it was agreed that neither of the EU initiatives worked. Of 90 Ariane translation grants so far, only one was for drama. The rules specify simultaneous translation and production in two EU languages, which is almost impossible to co-ordinate. The EU Kaleidoscope scheme was not felt to be relevant for getting text across borders. Both schemes are due for renewal/replacement and the conference made strong representations to the EU, demanding that any new scheme should support the production of translations from any one EU language to any other.
There was a writers session with Judit Herzberg (NL), Goran Stefanovski (Macedonia) and Olafur Simarson (Iceland) on the panel. Iceland has a population of 260,000, all of whom go to the theatre. Simarson spoke of a flourishing scene providing a regular income and occasional exports to Germany. Stefanovski's theme was 'Donald Duck meets Byzantium.' With the new American presence in Macedonia, an authoritarian, hierarchical, Greek Orthodox society with zero tolerance for the other, be it women or other races, is suddenly being exposed to a liberal, multi-cultural, secular US dominated world where family cohesion has broken down. This offers good tensions for writers but makes it a hard place to live. Young writers are exploring 'the generic essence of Macedonian culture'. It was relatively easy in Macedonia for new writers to get plays on.
Holland is the opposite of Macedonia, anything goes, tolerance is total. Half or more of the repertory is imported, mostly from Germany, though recent Royal Court British drama is arousing interest.
When it came to the practice of translation, elaborate schemes for a production team bringing together director, translator and an expert advisor from the source country were mooted.
A season of Slovenian drama was laid on for the conference with two plays each evening, at seven and ten. The best was Dusan Jovanovic's Who's Singing Sisyphus? The leading man in the blues opera Who's Singing Sisyphus which is being staged in Cologne was once briefly musical editor of a radio station on one of the sides in the Balkan war. The author of the opera wants to expose Sisyphus's hatred of war and death. In the work in progress he wants to combine the leading singer's personal fate with the myth of Sisyphus. An Unknown Woman starts to pester the singer with telephone calls challenging him about his moral responsibility for co-operating with media propaganda. The media, and music, have been used to incite the people and lead them to the slaughterhouse. The modern Balkan Sisyphus is not the rebel who fettered Thanatos so that nobody could die, nor is he a fratricidal criminal, but a colourless ordinary citizen, a conformist everyman inclined to compromise at every turn. With dawning awareness of his own turpitude he tries to escape from his conscience back into childhood. Only when he is punished does he become inwardly free.
The piece was directed by the author who is the country's leading writer and director at the Slovenian National Theatre. Jernej Sugman played the Opera Singer as a heroic tenor undergoing deflation. He is jubilant at having made it in Germany, 'Ich bin ein Opernsänger,' but long sessions on his mobile undermine his confidence as figures from his childhood and his past float in. The stage is bare for the first two sections, Offence and Chase, but for Punishment a steep bronze mound comes on with a matching boulder and Sisyphus struggles to roll it up. He comes to love his boulder - it is his freedom. Is the piece a performance? Is it a rehearsal - the author keeps intervening to change details. Or it all in the Opera Singer's imagination.
Without understanding a word, apart from the German interpolations, I found it gripping. Bits of Traviata, Rock and Pop and physical theatre all combined with a modern story-line.
Dane Zajc's Rocky Peak (Grmace) a story of village life directed by Mile Korun at the National Theatre, was less accessible. Yur is persuaded by two bad hat villagers to lead his father up to Rocky Peak and kill him. This rite of passage conforms to an ancient local myth of renewal. In the event however the planned patricide is tied up with rural land speculation and secret gold. The father refuses to be led by his axe-wielding son and long debates in the village ensue before he dies a natural death. The son then leads the bad hats to their death in a crevasse in search of hidden gold. It looked vigorously Brechtian with large numbers of work-stained peasantry on stage most of the time. Again Jernej Sugman played the lead, making Yur a moody, introvert, an outsider struggling to understand and conform to his world. The bare stage was filled with plain oblong tables, useful for the pub scenes, and pressed into service as mountains in the manner invented by Brecht for Baron Puntila and his Man Matti.
Drago Jancar's Halstatt at the Municipal Theatre was a black farce set in an old mine where Professor Habilis with his secretary and two assistants, one sexy the other not, is sorting and cataloguing a heap of bones. He claims to be on the brink of revolutionising the archaeology of the Bronze Age Halstatt culture, which looks unlikely, since a bayonet and an old Wehrmacht boot protrude from the heap. A tramp stumbles in and samples the cleaning fluid. After various arguments, overhearings, gropings and general misunderstandings we meet the tramp and assistants overground in main square Ljubljana as wino, prostitute and dropout. Was what went before the prostitute's fantasy? The Professor and his wife appear and buy a Celtic fibula the prostitute has retained from the underground scene, a final ambiguity. Franci Krizai directed and the audience laughed a lot.
Evald Flisar's What about Leonardo? at the Municipal Theatre was set in a mental institution. Among the works consulted by Flisar, was Oliver Sacks' The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat. Mr Martin is suffering from total amnesia. Dr Hofmann is nursing him gently, waiting for nature to effect a cure when Dr DaSilva, a power-dressed and dynamic lady as played by Veronika Drolc, arrives and insists on radical intervention. She bombards him with high culture and the thoughts of great thinkers, all of which he absorbs without achieving individuality. Dr DaSilva tries sex, applying the therapy in person. It doesn't work but Martin goes haywire and murders her and two others. That works. But the normal Mr Martin has no future as a triple murderer and elects to revert to his deranged persona. The play looked interesting, but was betrayed by some heavy, frontal overacting in a tackily plastic set. The heavy directorial hand was Dusan Mlakar's.
Emil Filipcic's Puzzle Home at the Mladinsko Theatre was a puzzle indeed, with no visible plot. Subtitled Scenes from the Marital Life of T. and P. and stylishly directed by Nick Upper, this two-hander looked like an exercise in Strindbergian trouble and strife. Niko Gorsic and Olga Grad faced the audience from behind a laden table, argued, copulated, argued again while she a assembled a large plastic doll. Eventually she dismembered it again and stuck the bits in a mound of sand. The voice of Piaf regretted nothing. J.S. Bach solemnified events. At the end the two strode naked upstage, Adam and Eve caught momentarily in a strobe. They seemed faintly embarrassed, possibly because their uncomprehending foreign audience was watching so solemnly. Filipcic, I learnt after the show is Slovenia's leading comedy writer, which goes to show that comedy is what gets lost when there's no translation.
Hugh Rorrison 1997