Tuesday 15 October 2013

5-7 pm
Arts & Humanities Common Room - Foster Court G24

This seminar considers theatre translation and naturalism, with a particular focus upon the dramatic writing of Ibsen, Chekhov, Strindberg, and Arthur Schnitzler. It features three academic papers, by Judith Beniston, Philip Bullock, and Marie Wells, followed by talks from Agnes Broomé and Howard Brenton about their work translating Strindberg for the Gate Theatre's recent production 'Dances of Death'. 

Tuesday 29 October 2013

5-7 pm
Bloomsbury Theatre Studio

The associated workshop led by Tara Robinson will explore the process of moving dramatic text from page to stage, using Howard Brenton's adaptation of 'Dances of Death'.


Translations: Ibsen’s middle-period plays: interpretation, versions and adaptations

Marie Wells

Taking as axiomatic that all translation is interpretation this talk will look at what has happened to some of Ibsen’s middle-period plays as they have been translated for print to be read and as ‘literal’ versions on which theatrical scripts have been based. I will argue that versions aim to stay as close as possible to the original while adaptations are focused outwards to the audience. Finally I will consider the implications of this in relation to Ibsen’s Naturalism. 

Doctors talking to Doctors in Arthur Schnitzler’s 'Professor Bernhardi' (1912)

Judith Beniston

The starting-point for Arthur Schnitzler’s medical drama Professor Bernhardi (1912) is that the title figure, an Austrian-Jewish doctor and director of a privately funded hospital, refuses a Catholic priest access to the bedside of a young woman who is dying (offstage) of sepsis following an illegal abortion. He does this not for religious reasons but because she is oblivious of her situation and he regards it as his professional duty to allow her to die peacefully and easily. This intervention concludes Act I, and the following four acts explore its ethical implications and political fallout (which includes a brief prison sentence for Bernhardi), in a turn-of-the-century Vienna that is riven by ethnic and religious tensions.

Schnitzler builds his play on what purports to be a realistic depiction of the hospital as working environment at a specific time in medical history and against a specific socio-political background – and does so without showing any character in a patient-facing role.  This paper will explore some of the difficulties that this institutional setting poses for the translator, and the solutions that have been offered in six English-language versions of Professor Bernhardi, whose publication dates range from 1913 to 2008. A key issue will be how the dialogue conveys hierarchies and structures of authority amongst the medical professionals, and distinctions of background and ethnicity between the individual characters. 

'Revolutionary Ideas on Paper': British Responses to Chekhov in the Early Twentieth and Early Twenty-First Centuries

Philip Bullock

The hypothesis I wish to outline - and partly to test - in this paper is whether the British reception of Chekhov's plays mirrors the pattern familiar from the British response to Tolstoy and other nineteenth-century Russian writers. Accordingly to a widely held view, the success of Tolstoy's fiction (as well as that of Turgenev's, and other Russian prose writers) can be traced to the ways in which their subtle, morally inflected realism could be enlisted as an antidote to the claims of contemporary European naturalism, most notably that of Zola; this is very much the thrust of Matthew Arnold's 1888 essay on 'Anna Karenina', for instance. Is it possible to argue, then, that the rather tame 'country house' Chekhov that is so characteristic of British production history constitutes an attempt to resist the claims of a coarser, more naturalistic form of theatre (Gorky, Hauptmann, Ibsen, Strindberg)? If that is the theatrical legacy of the early twentieth century, then what about the early twenty first? By looking at a spate of recent productions of Chekhov (and, to a lesser extent, Gorky too), I will explore the extent to which directors are happier with a looser, funnier and grittier form of Russian theatre that might have more in common with the European naturalist tradition than with a traditional fondness for Chekhovian lyric realism.

An audience of one – literal translation for a playwright

Agnes Broomé

One of the most important things to consider when translating any text is the intended audience. Doing a literal translation of a play is a peculiar exercise, because it has an audience of only one: the playwright. In a short talk I will try to give an idea of the unusual responsibilities, and the remarkable freedoms, this kind of translation presents to the translator, and discuss some of the ways in which literal translation of drama is different from other types of translation.

The Translation Trance

Howard Brenton

In this talk I will discuss making a version of a foreign play, rather than translating it: the impossible arrogant task of writing, for example, a great play by Strindberg for him in English. My experience is that it's like being a medium at a séance.

Practically Naturalism

Tara Robinson

This workshop will demonstrate the process of moving dramatic text from page to stage, using Howard Brenton’s adaptation of 'Dances of Death'. Two actors and a director will explore key moments of the play practically, enabling participants to watch an example rehearsal and a range of exercises designed to unlock the life of a text. They will also talk through the process of a four week rehearsal period, building character through interpretation and invite discussion of what ‘remaining true to the writer’ might mean to theatre practitioners.


Until her retirement in 2007 Dr Marie Wells was W.P.Ker Lecturer in Norwegian, teaching nineteenth and twentieth-century Norwegian literature and culture. Her research interest was in the plays of Ibsen. Since she retired she has worked as a translator, translating among other things Part II of Ibsen’s 10-Act play 'Emperor and Galilean' for the National Theatre. She also works with the innovative young theatre director Terje Tveit of the Ibsen Stage Company.

Agnes Broomé composed the literal translation for Howard Brenton’s adaptation of August Strindberg’s 'Dances of Death' at the Gate Theatre, 2013. Currently, she is working on the translation of Strindberg’s 'Miss Julie' and is finishing her PhD in translation studies and sociology of literature at UCL’s Department of Scandinavian Studies, where she also teaches the next generation of Scandinavian translators.

Howard Brenton’s many plays include 'Christie In Love' (Portable Theatre, 1969); 'Revenge' (Theatre Upstairs, 1969); 'Magnificence' (Royal Court Theatre, 1973); 'The Churchill Play' (Nottingham Playhouse, 1974 twice revived by the RSC 1978 and 1988);'Weapons Of Happiness' (National Theatre, 1976, Evening Standard Best Play Award); Epsom Downs (Joint Stock Theatre, 1977); 'Sore Throats' (RSC, 1978); 'The Romans In Britain' (National Theatre, 1980, Sheffield Crucible 2006); 'Thirteenth Night' (RSC, 1981); 'Bloody Poetry' (Foco Novo 1984 and The Royal Court Theatre, 1987); and 'Pravda' with David Hare (National Theatre,1985, Evening Standard Best Play Award) 'Greenland' (Royal Court 1988); 'Berlin Bertie' (Royal Court1992; 'Kit’s Play' (RADA Jerwood Theatre, 2000); 'Paul' (National Theatre 2005);'In Extremis' (Shakespeare’s Globe(2006/7); 'Never So Good' (National Theatre 2008; 'Anne Boleyn' (Shakespeare’s Globe 2010, revived there 2011 and toured in 2012, winner of the Whatsonstage Best Play Award and UK Theatre Awards Best Touring Production); '55 Days' (Hampstead Theatre 2012); 'The Arrest of Ai Weiwei' (Hampstead Theatre 2013) and 'The Guffin' (one act play,NT Connections 2013).

Versions of classic texts include 'The Life of Galileo' (National Theatre, 1980) 'Danton’s Death' (National Theatre, 1982 and a new version in 2010) and Goethe’s 'Faust' (RSC 1995/6.)  He adapted Robert Tressell’s 'The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists' for the stage (Liverpool Everyman and Chichester Festival Theatre 2010). 'Dances Of Death' (after Strindberg) was presented by The Gate Theatre, Notting Hill in 2013.

He wrote 13 episodes of the first four series of the Television Drama 'Spooks', broadcast as MI5 in the USA (2002-5, winner of the BAFTA Best Television Drama Series 2003).

Tara Robinson was assistant director for 'Dances of Death' at the Gate Theatre (2013). She is currently the Associate Director on 'A Midsummer Night’s Dream' in the West End, runs her own company The Conker Group which focuses on new work, is a Creative Associate at The Gate, and trained with The Abbey Theatre, Dublin and at RADA.