Building the Dollhouse
The beginning of a rehearsal is typically spent doing ‘table work’. This is where the cast, led by the director, sit at a table and discuss the play in depth, line by line. Table work can take anywhere from a day to a week or even more (I once acted in a production of King Lear where we spent nearly two weeks around the table).
On this production of Theatre du Pif’s A Doll’s House, we didn’t begin our rehearsal merely discussing the text, we were actually creating it. We, as a company, spent over a week taking the original text and creating a bilingual version that we will perform in Cantonese and English.
But before I tell you more about the extremely interesting process of adapting this classic play, I need to back up and talk about translations and adaptations. There’s been a great deal of scholarship about the process of taking a play written in one language and converting it into another. University courses have been taught and books written on the topic.
So, of course I – with great temerity – will attempt to summarize the process in a few paragraphs. In very broad terms, a translation attempts to remain as faithful as possible to the author’s original literal meaning while an adaptation takes more liberties while attempting to stay somewhat true to authorial intent.
What kind of liberties? There are many possible kinds but the most common include: changing a play’s location and/or time; eliminating or doubling minor characters; and editing the text to suit modern sensibilities.
For our version of A Doll’s House, we’ve done all three of these things. First, we’ve reset the play from Norway in 1879 to 1960s Hong Kong. Second, we’ve eliminated some minor characters such as the porter, the maid, and the nanny. Finally, we’ve made some very judicious cuts (I’ll discuss some of these more specifically in future posts).
I’ve been fascinated by people’s reactions when I’ve told them about this project. The majority of people have been quite excited upon hearing of this production. There are those, however, who have reacted with thinly veiled disdain. When I mentioned the Chinese element of our production, one director snarked, “Ah yes, in the original Cantonese.”
I couldn’t help but think that this director was a total jackass. Just to be clear, Henrik Ibsen never wrote a play called A Doll’s House. He wrote a masterpiece in 1879 called Et Dukkehjem. That’s right, it was in Norwegian. So I’m not sure why a Cantonese version is any less valid than an English one.
Translations and adaptations have always been controversial, especially with classic plays. Some people are staunch traditionalists who believe that authorial intent is sacrosanct. They feel that one must translate the great classics as literally as possible without deviation from the source text.
Obviously, I’m not one of those people. In fact, I feel that the notion of literal translation is nothing more than a quixotic fantasy. Something is invariably lost in the act of translation. Not all linguistic nuances have perfect analogs in the receiving language so what you’re left with is a set of expedient compromises.
But I think there’s a larger point in restaging the great foreign classics of Western drama. Let’s say hypothetically that there were a canonical, ‘perfect’ translation of Et Dukkehjem. I’m sure it would be fun to stage this canonical version but, personally, I consider it more fun to update the classic to be more immediate and relevant to a specific audience – in this particular case a 21st century Hong Kong audience. Who would want to put on the twenty-thousandth production of a ‘perfect’ translation when one could make something original and relevant and unique?
Anyway, all of that was a long digression from telling you about our first week around the table. The process of adaption actually began the week before I arrived. That’s when the Cantonese parts of the play were translated. Perhaps I should explain the conceit behind the bilingualism.
(I’m going to assume that all you readers are already familiar with the plot of A Doll’s House. If you’re not, there are some excellent versions available and a cursory synopsis is available here.)
In our version, Nora will speak English to her husband Raymond (originally Torvald in Et Dukkehjem) and to their friend Dr Rank. She will speak Cantonese to her childhood friend Mrs Lim (originally Mrs Linde) and to Neil Kwan (originally Nils Krogstad).
In Et Dukkehjem, Ibsen does a brilliant job of creating a heroine who is like a bird in a gilded cage. Torvald controls all aspects of Nora’s life: her finances, how the house is furnished, he even forbids her to eat sweets. In our version, we take this one step further: Raymond essentially forbids Nora to speak her native tongue in the house.
Why would he do such a thing? It’s important to remember that the vestiges of colonialism were still very present in 1960s Hong Kong. Speaking English was a sign of upward mobility in that time. So there were certainly native Chinese who, in an attempt to climb the social ladder, attempted to affect European airs. Raymond is one of these and he will certainly register as a familiar type of character with modern HK audiences.
So with the Cantonese translations completed last week, we spent all of this week around the table selecting English text. We worked with four different versions of the text: Et Dukkehjem (with a Norwegian-English dictionary), an open source translation, a Frank McGuinness translation, and a recent translation by Simon Stephens. What we settled upon (although I’m sure it will change in the weeks to come) was a collage drawn from our various sources and our own original writing.
Just this morning, we had an interesting discussion about Raymond, the character that I’m playing. Specifically, what is his accent? Sean and Bonni originally saw him as an overseas Chinese who would sound more or less like me with my Canadian accent. Our director Marjorie imagines him as a native-born Hong Kong Chinese who speaks excellent English, albeit with a Cantonese accent.
I didn’t come to rehearsal with any preconceived idea of Raymond’s accent. Having listened to both sides of the argument, I’m excited to try what Marjorie suggests although I’m quite terrified at the thought of pretending to be an authentic Cantonese speaker in front of thousands of genuine Hong Kongers. Well, at least I have six weeks to try to become a credible Hong Kong man of the 60s. I’ll keep you posted.