How It Translates, Our Artistic Director’s Approach

When people find out that I’m working on a medieval play, almost always the first question is, “Are you doing it in modern or Middle English?” These days the answer is almost always modern, because despite enjoying it myself, I’ve come to recognise that Middle English is really challenging for audiences, and, unfortunately, often cuts them off from really getting to grips with the play they’re seeing. The next question tends, from academics, to be “Which edition did you use?”, and from non-academics, “How did you translate it?”

Despite how different it looks on the page, Middle English is not actually that difficult to get your head or tongue around. In fact, sounding words out aloud, the way kids learn to read, is a good way to make sense of it on occasion; the spellings will be peculiar, but once you hear it spoken, you’ll usually know what it means. So I’m never entirely sure that it’s really a “translation” proper. But, if you’ve been curious, here is how it happens.

First I go through the script and change any archaic letters into their modern equivalent. (For example: something that looks rather like the modern lower-case “y” is actually a “th”- it’s where we get “ye olde” from; it would have been pronounced as “the”.) Then I change all the really obvious words into modern spelling, which will usually be about three quarters of the text. Next come the words that are definitely in Middle English but whose meanings I have come to know over the years of working with it. I usually spend the better part of a day with a thesaurus, trying to find the closest word in meaning and colour, that also keeps any rhyme schemes and meters that might be present. About half the time, I can find a good translation that keeps the poetry and alliteration intact. When I can’t, I have to make some executive decisions. Will the audience make sense of an unfamiliar word from the context? How important is that particular word, or is the primary meaning conveyed elsewhere in the line? In some instances, I’ll leave the Middle English word in, feeling pretty sure that it won’t be detrimental to conveying the story or characters. In others, I’ll have to make the decision to disturb the carefully wrought meter or alliteration for the sake of clarity.

The biggest challenge is tracking down the words that I don’t know. Middle English can be difficult to look up (absent having a university library’s resources at your fingertips, and I usually work at home) because the spellings are so capricious; in some cases the word’s definition might actually be speculative and uncertain, and in others there might have been a clerical error which muddles the picture. There’ll usually be one or two that completely stymie me, which warrants a call to medievalist friends to pick their brains. In the end, it’s pretty rare not to track down some idea of what a word should mean. With that done, I repeat the process of trying to decide if I can keep the ancient word, or wrestling through trying to find an appropriate substitute if I can’t.

Invariably, there will be a bit of Latin. This is one area where I suffer as a medievalist: my Latin is virtually non-existent. That’s more time with dictionaries, Latin translation webpages, and usually some phone calls to colleagues who don’t mind helping me with tricky bits. (The up side to this is that I’ve picked up a bit more of the language than I would probably know otherwise.)

Only when I’ve got it pretty much solidified will I pull the editions off the shelf. My purpose in doing so is simply self-editing: I want to check that I haven’t misunderstood anything, that their glosses on words match my translations. I always look at as many as I have or can get my hands on, because sometimes they don’t agree on specific words, and sometimes one will have a more precise meaning that I need to contemplate. A lot of editions will also have commentary on parts of the play, which might clue me in about why a particular scene is written in a specific way.

It’s only after the script has been brought into the twentieth century that I start contemplating any necessary changes or cuts. I know that to some people this is anathema, and it may seem to go against my earlier assertion to trust the text with which I’m working. That trust doesn’t mean a play is perfect, though, or that as it has come down to us it is perfect for what we’re doing. It does mean, however, that I can tell you exactly why I’m changing things, and how I’ve done it; I don’t just go in and start chopping. Our rearrangement of the Vices in our current production of Mankind is a good example of this: it may be unorthodox, but I think that it helps make the play a little bit neater for this production. (If “re-creation” or “authenticity” were our intent, I would not have made that sort of change.)

Translating is a rather tedious and fiddly process, but it has the definite benefit that, while I may not have it memorised, I do know the script really well by the time we get into rehearsals, not just conceptually, but in a structural sense, how it is put together as well as what it is saying. And it’s easier to sort out any confusion the actors have with what is still a pre-modern verse piece. In the end, we have a script I’m happy with, which stays fairly close to the original.

Memories From The Baptism

 

We’re very sentimental about York’s Mystery Plays- after all, it’s where HIDden began. The quadrennial event remains close to our collective heart, not just because of our history with it, or even because YMP really stands for a lot of the same things we do, but because we just had such a wonderful time working on that production.

Among the reasons we’re so excited to be revisiting the production for the upcoming YMP conference is that it gives us a chance to get our cast back together. We were extremely fortunate to have such a talented, dedicated, and personally lovely group of actors for The Baptism, and we’re equally lucky to welcome them back. We expect that our rehearsals will be full of fond memories from last year, and we asked the cast and crew to share some of their favourites before the event.

Charles Hunt (God) sent this photo. Taken in the Minster Gardens before our first performance, the joke was that it was a “family portait” of God (Charles), his son Jesus (Ehren Mierau), and the Holy Ghost as embodied by a dove.

Trinity

Kate Thomas (Angel) remembers the downpour that had us all trapped in the waggon works when the area around it flooded. We’d just finished a rehearsal and put the waggon away for the night when it started to rain heavily, and the puddle that formed at the gate to the waggon works rose quickly to take over the entire driveway. A couple people from another group were stuck in a corner on a high bit of ground, also surrounded by water. Eventually someone opened up a blocked drain, and the water went down right away. We reflected later, though, that perhaps we should have taken advantage of the situation and put our waggon in the enormous puddle: wooden waggon wheels are challenging to keep damp, but it’s the best way to keep their metal rims from falling off.

Rain was also a problem the first day of performance. After the waggons had come into town, while we were waiting to film for the BBC’s broadcast, the skies opened up and poured down on us. We weren’t sure if it would pass in time for the filming, and had quite a waffling around with whether or not the angels should wear their easily damaged feathered wings if it didn’t. We spent the time waiting in the seating, one of the only dry places available. At one point someone pulled out a pin, a nod to the old question of how many angels could dance on its head- all three actors managed to get a finger on it, but it wasn’t quite a dance!

Ian Murphy (producer) and Nathan Bargate (production manager) both recalled with a laugh an incident from the building of the set. There was a question of whether the throne seat was safely secured and Nathan tested it by jumping on it rather enthusiastically. It wasn’t, and he fell into the throne. While he was stuck there, a crew member asked if he could offer an idea. “May I suggest… a cushion?” was his idea- not exactly useful at that moment, but amusing to all present.

Laura Elizabeth Rice (artistic director) recalls the performance in St Sampson’s Square as a favourite moment, because it was such a challenging location, with lots of noise, footfall and traffic. The cast handled it brilliantly, adjusting to these circumstances without missing a beat. At the end, one audience member who had been passing through was heard to remark, “If I’d known the plays were all like that, I’d’ve come out to see more!”- one of the nicer compliments for being unintentional, and especially in a space generally considered to be difficult.

We could probably go on at some length- there are an awful lot of “favourite moments” from last summer- but of course right now we’re looking forward to creating new memories among the company and for the audience. If you haven’t registered for the conference, do consider it. The mystery plays, in any form, usually find a way to be memorable.

In Conversation: The Late Victorian World of the Music Hall

I recently had a long chat with Lola Wingrove, our collaborator on ‘The Vital Spark’ and an expert on women in Victorian music-hall performance. Many interesting issues were raised in this conversation, which we hope will come through in the finished work. We’ll be posting some of this discussion here, to give you some background, and also as a window into some of the things we think about when putting together a play about the past.

 

Laura Rice: I think it’s kind of hard to get one’s head around music halls today, we just don’t have anything like it. We don’t have different theatres for different socio-economic classes. Theatre is generally thought of as a middle and upper class thing now, because of prices, and the theatre of the common, for everybody, is television and film, so we don’t have relationship with the idea that there could actually be separate theatres based on who you are.

 

Lola Wingrove: It’s quite interesting because things like film was basically what killed music halls, film and then television, and television is blamed a lot for the downfall of film nowadays, because if you’ve got it in your front room why would you bother going out. Most people seem to be staying in their houses and aren’t really interacting in the same kind of way. One of the biggest draws in music halls was their sense of community spirit and bringing everyone together and making everyone feel like they’re sort of mucking in together, so to speak. Yes, I think it’s something that’s quite foreign to us now, when we think about it, it doesn’t quite work out. It’s a really interesting theatre format, but people can’t quite understand it so much now.

 

LR: Do we have anything analogous? I feel like there are different programmes that are aimed at different groups, but it’s not quite the same in live performance.

 

LW: No. I know people [have compared] the TV show “Britain’s Got Talent” to the variety performance, because it’s the same sort of set-up of having people doing different kinds of performance, and you’ve still got that interactive quality, with people ringing in and voting and people talking about it in the street, and they’ll chat to eachother about it and read about it in the paper, so you’ve got that kind of weird community, in that it draws everybody in to talk about something in common. But one of the really great things that music halls did was actually reflect everyday life, a bit like soap operas do today, only the live format made it all even more immediate. They would have performers on stage that were performing for the people as the people you’d see selling stuff on the markets, or in the coffee shops. So although the kind of classed analogy is sort of there, it doesn’t totally work in that same sort of way. That’s why I think people have a difficulty understanding music hall.

 

LR: And the idea of variety, in a performance, because you don’t go to something where you’re going to see seven or eight different things, on potentially completely different themes in one night, we just don’t really have that anymore.

 

LW: That’s the thing, [there were] professionals going around and doing these different acts, and they would perform all across the country, so you’ve got professionals- animal trainers, acrobats, dancers, singers, comedians. And on the bills, quite often, especially towards the late Victorian period, the music halls would normally include a section from a ballet or an opera or something, so we tend to think of music halls as being these sort of rowdy, working-class kind of thing, and [we often think they were] a suppression, a way of keeping the working class away from the fine arts, but it wasn’t that at all. I mean, they were much better versed in ballet and opera and things like that than a lot of us probably are today, because of the fact that they would see it on a regular basis and get all these different acts. And we tend to think of the halls as being quite xenophobic because of the amount of patriotism and stuff like that, but for a lot of the halls, they actually employed lots of different acts from all over Europe, and there was a cultural exchange happening through the halls, which is quite often neglected and ignored as well, so it was quite a sort of novel and interesting experience. There are some acts that are just a little bit weird. Like, there was one guy and his whole act was just jumping up and down on the spot. No one has quite worked out why that was so popular, but he apparently just jumped up and down and everyone thought it was wonderful. But that’s the problem with performance history and archives, you can’t quite see how he did it in a way that was so hilarious.

 

LR: Where do their performers fit into the bigger arts picture of the times, and into society on the whole? I assume Jenny Hill wasn’t someone Queen Victoria was going to invite over for coffee, but maybe she would, I don’t know!

 

LW: Well, not Hill, but [her contemporary] Bessie Bellwood, she was invited by Princess Louise, by royal appointment, to sing one of her songs, because she’d heard the servants singing it and enjoyed it, so she invited Bessie Bellwood to go and sing to her. That’s how far it could go, if you had a really good, catchy song! Even royalty could invite you to perform.

I think at that particular time, because this is long before the royal command performance occurred, a lot of the middle and upper classes just tended to think of the performers as low and just weren’t particularly interested in them. They’d almost be sort of our idea of the reality show stars today, where if you were middle or upper class you’d probably have heard of Jenny Hill, and there are certain songs that you might even buy to play on your piano by her, but you wouldn’t exactly think of her in particularly high esteem. However, amongst the working classes… That is arguably a much wider base, because most of the classes would go to the halls, that was their main source of entertainment. Especially in the winter time when at home it would be very dark or you wouldn’t have enough money to get a fire going, you could go to these halls which were all beautiful and glittery and well-heated, so people would often go to the halls several times a week.

[With] that kind of audience base, performers like Jenny Hill were exceptionally well known, I mean they were really, really hugely famous, to the extent that when they died, in the funeral procession, they would have ten thousand people lining the street for them, these sorts of amounts. Definitely for Hill. Marie Lloyd was a very famous, she had twenty or thirty thousand lined up, lining the streets for her. So they were hugely popular and influential, with women in particularly. [Women would be] waiting for them backstage to give them presents. They had a lot of groupies, a lot of people were really sort of obsessed with them, and they were the stars who were used the most for advertising. They were the ones who were put onto cigarette cards or used to advertise [other things], in Vesta Tilley’s case it was clothes. And advertising gives you some power as well, so they were enormously famous, probably just because of that wide base, probably even better known that some of the legitimate performers, who arguably had the smaller audience base really.

 

LR: Is there any permeability between those two worlds theatrically?

 

LW: There was. Each year for pantomime the legitimate theatres stole a lot of the music hall and variety performers for their pantomimes, in order to get quite a lot more people in, and so even the middle and upper classes would have seen Jenny Hill in her numerous amounts of pantomime, so they did cross over to the mainstream theatres there, and there’s a lot of evidence of music hall performers being asked to perform, because even the legitimate theatres, they’d have a main play, but they’d quite often have a little bit of variety warm-up stuff before the main event happened, so they’d get performers like Jenny Hill to perform there. So there were definitely cases of that. And also, both amongst opera and ballet stars, there’s a lot of them finishing performing, and then going around to a hall around the corner and deciding to have a sort of knees-up but still perform again, and so there was quite a lot of moving across in that way. I don’t think there were so many legitimate actress who’d want to be seen on the music hall stage, so there’s a bit less in terms of cases of it going that way, but definitely in the other way it did work, and in fact I know they often said with Jenny Hill, that she was good enough and had been invited to perform in legitimate theatres as an actress.

 

 

A Report From The Field: Medieval Drama at The Kalamazoo Conference

I’ve recently returned from my annual pilgrimage to the international medieval conference in Kalamazoo, Michigan: four days of talking shop with medieval drama scholars from various countries and different specialities. Medieval drama tends to be a pretty small field, so there’s always a certain element of reunion with friends to the conference.

One of the themes which seemed to keep popping to the surface this year was that of performance. The central question was, why is medieval drama so overlooked? As someone said, the ancient Greek dramas often make it to the stage, not to mention the obvious revivals of Shakespeare that proliferate across Britain (and everywhere else). But medieval plays have remained the province of small church groups or within academic halls. Why… and how do we find a way to break this paradigm?

The issues discussed would sound like a depressingly challenging, almost insurmountable litany, but it was actually very positive. There seems to be a subtle groundswell in favour of more productions, especially those that aren’t tied to a university course or department. This is where companies like HIDden come in. It’s always exciting to find that we are, in fact, part of a bigger movement, and in a position to really work toward a larger goal. We’ve always believed that historic plays should be seen, and can be enjoyed by a much wider audience than might be supposed. It was very encouraging to be among others who are thinking along the same lines.

Of course this is all regarding medieval drama specifically, which is just one era of many. But if one rather small corner of the historic drama picture is potentially moving out of the shadows, it means there is scope for other neglected gems from the past to come into the limelight. In short, it means that, in a wider context, we’re on the right track.

We’re living in exciting times with historic drama, and I for one feel quite lucky to be part of it all.