On friday night i attended an event at Clwyd Theatr Mold that was a little bit more than just seeing a play...
Four of us had agreed to take part in one of the NTW hosted 'Critical Chinwag' sessions, a really simple idea to get people talking about a play afterwards, in an informal way. Throw into this some matters of translation and varying degrees of Welsh language ability and the evening became fun on another whole level.
The play was Ibsen's 'The Lady From The Sea'. I had wanted to see this play from the minute i heard about it coming on tour, and was particularly interested that it had been translated into Welsh (from the original in Norwegian, and often performed in English).
I am not a fluent speaker by a long way, but being a Welsh learner i was really intrigued to see how i got on with this. With the offer of the new Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru smartphone ap 'Sibrwd' ('whispers')to provide bits of synopsis as the play went along i took the plunge... The rest of the party were a mix in terms of welsh speakers - one native speaker, one almost none, another learner but much more advanced than myself.
The play was great. It, like its characters, was haunted and compelling, its central character Elida drawn to both the open sea and a seafaring stranger who returns from her past to unsettle her comfortable, but constrained life. the symbolic nature of the stranger, who has a wildness and a dangerous edge to him, provides the human story of the sometime conflict of love and freedom. This was echoed at different levels through the other characters and their mix of sharply perceptive view of relationships, and naive idealisation of the same. The play was gripping and at times painful, like the characters who each seemed consumed by unreconciled desires, i too felt conflicted with both empathy and frustration for them as their stories unfolded.
One of the things we talked about afterwards was how the female characters strained against the limitations of being a kept woman in the society of their time - yet still with resonance now - they seemed very modern women. It was nice to see a playwright from the 19th century giving such strength of character to the women in the play. conversely even the kindest of the male characters was seen to be limited, or coming very late to his understanding that unconditional love is to grant freedom to your love to be herself, and choose for herself what she wants. this was depicted in a fascinating and sometimes amusing way by the characters, key to which was the symbolic and ever-present character of the sea/ seafarer. the set dealt with this very simply and pleasingly too, with large structural backdrops creating an enclosed feeling of the fjord that contain Elida, and the central area of sun bleached boards narrowing into the back simultaneously providing a glittering hint of the sea, and a polite promenade for the players. Nice use of light and shadow sometimes created interesting juxtapositions - notably by emphasising the pale, luminous beauty of Elida in contrast to her dark and tormented feelings. Her transformations in mood from turmoil to calm were also like the changeability of the stormy seas. The costume design also effected a simple but striking transformation of her as the play developed, starting with her in dress that was relatively monotone and in keeping with her fellow characters, but becoming more ornate with flashes of blue, and layered like waves, and then her final dress in a dazzling turquoise as she fully inhabited her passion and identity.
It was fun to talk about the play afterwards - its always interesting to see how other people see something for a start, but also learning from others understanding of the material. i am not what i would call an 'educated' theatre goer, i just absolutely love the intense starkness of theatre where less is so often more. As a visual artist i have also found that it is in stage design that i can best explore and express the sensory and visceral experience I love most.
Using the Sibwrd ap was an interesting experience and helpful too. I had some backup from the fantastic Sibrwd team who provided me with an ipod when i discovered minutes before the start that my phone battery was right out, phew! Correctly described as a synopsis tool, it definitely did not provide a translation, more like little snippets of narrative to explain what was going on. The speech itself was not interpreted, and to anyone who was not at all a Welsh speaker they would not have been able to enjoy some of the great dialogue. However i was really pleased to find personally that my welsh is getting good enough that I was understanding almost all of what was being said, including crucial discussions about the duties of the wife and husband, of freedom, yearning and choices, and i even got some of the jokes! I am in no qualified position to say this but it 'felt' like the translation was excellent, it seemed to catch the spirit and emotion of the dialog without feeling like it was bogged down or unnatural. It felt like it was being spoken in its original language. The native welsh speaker amongst us, Dave Sabichi, also a writer and with knowledge of the original was emphatic that the translation was spot-on.
The great thing about the availability of the Sibrwd ap is that gave me the confidence to come along to a welsh language production without being worried i might not be able to follow it. Because it did not hold my hand every step of the way (Sophie Mckeand described it fantastically as 'like having stabilisers on a bike') this in turn gave me the opportunity to really work my developing language skills and i came away feeling really encouraged by how much I understood. I'll be dragging my whole welsh class along next time!
The whole thing - not just a really good play and great adaptation, but also hosting the enthusiastic natter afterwards and providing the talking synopsis option adds up to an outstanding set of options to enjoy theatre to the maximum. I am very grateful to National Theatre Wales for offering these different layers for those that want them - you're really getting it right.
I felt vastly enriched by the experience and am left with a powerful impression from the play itself that connected very strongly to all of us. There is no doubt that this was through language, a translation that seemed more than just words but captured the deepest spirit of person inseparable from landscape. "its almost as if Ibsen could have been Welsh"