King Lear in Transit – Time Travel through Translation and Performance
Reviewed by Kinga Földváry
Translation is an issue for us in Hungary. It is an issue in Hungarian Shakespeare studies, and it is an equally relevant and lively area of debate concerning Shakespearean performance, so much so that translations and retranslations may even come up and be commented on in intelligent social – non-academic – conversation: the awareness that translation is a necessary medium of cultural exchange is a part of our national identity in many ways. Besides the canonical set of classical Shakespeare translations, done by the greatest nineteenth- and early twentieth-century poets, there is an ever-expanding collection of modern translations, mostly commissioned by theatres who find it increasingly problematic to attract their audiences (and direct their actors) with more and more archaic sounding poetic texts.
That is the reason why the King Lear production directed by Bertalan Bagó in Székesfehérvár’s respectable Vörösmarty Theatre brought such attention to itself by their decision to combine two translations, the canonical 1856 translation by Mihály Vörösmarty, the very man the theatre is named after, and the 2010 version by Ádám Nádasdy, linguist and university professor, poet and translator, whose Shakespeare renderings are increasingly regarded as the contemporary canon (used in subtitles for the Globe Theatre’s visiting Hamlet production, among other prestigious events).
In Bagó’s King Lear (dramaturge: András Tucsni), the two translations were combined in a way that the older generation, Lear, Gloucester and Kent spoke in the nineteenth-century language of Vörösmarty, while the rest of the cast, with approximately 70% of the lines, spoke Nádasdy’s contemporary idiom. At least this is how it was supposed to be going, and what I was most looking forward to experiencing – and to my greatest surprise, I hardly noticed anything. The only thing that was obvious from the start was the presence of a wide and unbridgeable gap between generations in this kingdom, not that they spoke in different languages – simply everyone spoke in a language that characterised them well. It is true that there were some slightly problematic clashes of meaning, as the Fool was sometimes referred to as “Clown”, as a result of a change in meaning and usage over time. Also, the very last lines of the play, spoken by Edgar, were noticeably archaic, in the Vörösmarty translation, and made me slightly confused as to the meaning of this recourse to the old world, after seeing everyone from the old generation find their graves – but then again, after what we have witnessed, the old and irretrievable world still looks better than the new one.
The costume design of the performance looked slightly clichéd at first – greyish military uniforms, which the younger generation soon shed to reveal garish colourful party dresses the moment their elders left the scene, and which gradually turned to rags on the old by the time they completed their journeys through all sorts of trials and tribulations. Apparently this is the way Shakespearean tragedy is approximated to modern audiences in recent years – from Rupert Goold’s Macbeth to several recent Richard III productions, and even Sam Mendes’ brand new Lear in London’s National Theatre. It seems that a military dictatorship is the only social setting in which we can imagine such horrors to be possible (and how wrong we are). However, with the brass band of the Székesfehérvár army base providing not only background music but also an eerily orchestrated crowd in battle scenes, the military context somehow felt right. The scenery looked equally minimalistic at first, with faceless, schematic statues suggesting ceremonial spaces, but by the end the same statues were broken, distorted, dismembered, and thus came to stand for authority, government, the whole kindom – the body politic of the state, shown to be as vulnerable and mortal as the body natural of its king and his subjects. Another memorable setting was the hunting lodge where Gloucester’s blinding took place, with boars’ and deer’s heads mounted (in fact images projected) on the back wall, their glass eyes watching passively throughout the horrors of the scene, bearing witness to and becoming unforgettable reminders of the bestiality of so-called human beings.
After the performance – in fact, even when I saw it the second time – the expression I kept thinking of was that this Lear managed somehow to “grow on me” – both the production, whose power and coherence gained momentum with every passing minute, and the protagonist, György Cserhalmi’s King Lear, who seemed to be growing in stature in line with his losing power and position. And while this development is a commonplace in the play’s critical interpretation, I was still surprised to realise, almost against myself, how this can be impressed on a theatre audience in such a powerful way. At the beginning I was on the verge of disappointment for a less than royal Lear (or one simply not old and majestic enough for the position), but it is either Cserhalmi’s performance that was dynamically improving, or – as I believe it must be – a consciously designed maturation process, by the end of which I no longer felt him too young or weak for the role, but just perfect in every way.
Other members of the cast also gave impressive performances: Edmund (Zalán Makranczi) the embodiment of the charming devil, the handsome, intelligent, but equally immoral self-made-man, who cares for no one, spares no one, and uses everyone that can help him along his way to power. Edgar’s figure (Csaba Krisztik), in contrast, was somewhat troubling as a confused, spoiled youth, who has to learn the hard way what it means to lose everything that he used to take for granted, but his consciously donned mask of madness and his slightly clownish manner found spectacular expression in his acrobatic, almost monkey-like movements and gestures. The only performance where I felt a tinge of disappointment was that of Cordelia/the Fool (Eszter Földes), whose enunciation had a somewhat amateurish, student-like quality, further emphasised by her white Pierrot make-up and costume in the Fool scenes, adding up to a general colourlessness. Nonetheless, even the fact that she could offer no real hope, no ideals to believe in, is not antagonistic to the general meaning of the play in this performance – after all, this is not a tale that would give us much cause for optimism. The only real hope we may get is from the fact that Shakespearean translation is still such a thriving art where a new, colloquial, contemporary text can be grafted onto a venerable classic branch and bring forth healthy fruit for future generations to taste.