La Celestina

Written: 2004

First Performed: Edinburgh International Festival & Birmingham Rep

Note: Fernando de Rojas

TRANSLATING AND ADAPTING LA CELESTINA

Towards the very end of LA CELESTINA, as you know, Pleberio laments his dead daughter.

"O life full of grief, o life accompanied by misery. O world, world. … When I was young I imagined your doings were governed by some order and justice; and now, having seen the pro and the contra of your dispositions, see you to be a labyrinth of errors, a frightful desert, the dwelling place of wild beasts, a dance full of changes, a lake full of ash, a country full of thorns, a wild steep mountain, a field full of stones, a meadow full of snakes, a garden of flowers but no fruit, a fountain of cares, a river of tears, an ocean of miseries, labour without profit, sweet poison, vain hope, false happiness, true grief". (Nick Hern Books, p 166)

He presents us with a view of the world governed by chaos and chance.

One of the horrors and delights of trying to translate a work like CELESTINA and adapt it for the stage is that you have to expose yourself to this world, and fully engage with its vagaries. That often means that the decisions that are taken, and the choices that are made, are not governed, as one would so often wish, by reasoned judgement and deliberate choice so much as happen in a rush, as if by accident, in haste and in chaos.

This is an aspect of theatrical translation that does not often get spoken of in gatherings such as these; and that is perhaps one reason why I want to dwell on it here.

Also, because as I reflect on the process of preparing CELESTINA for the stage I can think of no other.

Yet perhaps of all the translation projects I have ever undertaken CELESTINA was the one that demanded most time for reflection and ordered preparation. Its difficulties stem partly from its language, which is so young, so vigourous, so much an undiscovered country the book’s authors race through with amazed delight. Contemporary English, on the other hand, feels corrupted and stale. Also both de Rojas and the book’s first author were steeped in scholastic book learning which they clearly take immense pleasure in parodying. The element of parody gets lost because contemporary audiences no longer have access to its target.

Above all, it is difficult to place on stage because it was never intended to be performed on a stage, but read aloud when and whenever performer and audience took it into their heads to do so. It has no plot development, no dramatic structure… but it seems wrong to reproach its amazing writers for not writing a good play when they never set out to write one. The crucial thing to remember is that it needs to be treated like a new and experimental dramatic text – with all the extra research and development and rehearsal time that entails.

Research, development and rehearsal time it never received. But perhaps in the end in a strange way the spirit of intense vitality, chaos and imminent mortality that pervaded the process of this translation’s creation is one very close to the spirit of the original work. So perhaps that saved us from almost certain disaster. I write under conditions of some difficulty. I hope you will forgive me if I present you with a somewhat bald chronology. As follows:

December 2003 [8 months before opening night]
I am in Bonn, learning German. I am preparing myself to adapt Goethe’s FAUST for Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum theatre. I get a characteristically cryptic phone call from Brian McMaster, director of the Edinburgh Festival, asking me if I have ever translated CELESTINA.

As it turns out, I have. In 1989, the National Theatre commissioned a version from me. Nuria Espert was to direct it and Joan Plowright was to play the title role. My script was accepted, the show was cast, but mr. Plowright (a.k.a. Laurence Olivier) died just before the start of rehearsals. So the production never happened. I adapted the version for radio a few years later, but it has never been performed on stage.

February 5th 2004 [6 months before opening night]
It has emerged that the proposal is for Calixto Bieito to direct CELESTINA for this year’s Edinburgh Festival. We meet for 2 hours in an Edinburgh hotel. A difficulty is that having read the 1989 version we both agree it simply won’t do.

Not that it is necessarily a bad version; more that at the time I was concerned with trying to tame the text, to tone down its strangeness, to make it acceptable. But now it is precisely the strangeness of the text, its striking opposition to current theatrical norms, that attracts us.

So the translation needs to be done again. From scratch. In the light of all our other commitments, and the insanely short time scale we have been given, is this really feasible?

We agree it is. Because we want to.

We are, of course, deceiving ourselves.

March 28th [20 weeks before opening night]
Clearly, the first stage is to agree on cuts to the original text. This is the first day we can meet together.

We meet in his house in Castelldefels, just outside Barcelona.

Working with Calixto is a joy. He combines profoundest knowledge of the text with the surest theatrical instinct. He both demands the highest standards and at the same time places utter trust in your knowledge and skills. His super-abundant energy enables me to reach just about half way through this monstrous text.

Which is just as well, because for now this is all the time we have.

On the taxi home, he points out to me the biggest brothel in Europe. Conveniently placed: just beside the motorway.

April 18th [17 weeks before opening night]
The second meeting with Calixto. This time we meet in the office of his theatre, the Teatre Romea, in Barcelona.

In the meantime, besides working on FAUST, I have been translating SITIOS by Omar Lorenzo, for the Royal Court (rehearsed public reading: April 3rd), devising a new play with acting students from my university, trying to organise further productions of my plays THE HAUNTED MAN and GOD’S NEW FROCK, and teaching.

Calixto, too, looks tired. We plough on.

By the end of the evening we have reached the end of the text and cut the 65,600 words of the original down to 35,656. Which I must now translate.

April 19th
I fly back to Edinburgh. Posters advertising the show are now up outside the King’s Theatre: and I have not been able to write a single word.

I don’t feel very frightened by this: more exhilarated. To translate well, you have to lose yourself in the original. It’s easier to do under pressure.

April 20th
I begin a 26 days residency in Hawthornden Castle, a writer’s retreat just outside Edinburgh. University and family commitments in effect cut this down to 21 days.

The residency is organised to allow the writer maximum concentration on work with minimum distractions. Which is just as well: I need to translate approximately two thousand words a day to meet my deadlines.

De Rojas claimed to have written the original in just a few days; like me, I suspect he wrote under immense speed and pressure. And, again like me, I am sure he never had any serious time to revise.

May 17th [13 weeks to opening night; 6 weeks to rehearsals]
The script is complete. In English it turns out at 43,242 words. I send copies to: Calixto, Birmingham Rep., Kathryn Hunter (who is to play Celestina), my publisher (Nick Hern) and my agent.

The script is still monstrously long. At least twice as long as it needs to be. I send it to Kathryn with some misgivings; it really is in no state to even contemplate performing it.

June 2nd [11 weeks to opening night; 4 weeks to rehearsals]
I fly to Berlin to meet Calixto. At the start of this project he had given me to understand that he had a "revival" of an opera to direct in Berlin and a "little project for my own theatre".

It turns out that the "revival" is, in fact, a new production of Die Entführung aus dem Serail at the Komische Oper; and the "little project" is a new production of KING LEAR for the Teatre Romea.

Somehow, Calixto is contriving to direct both shows at once.

Our meeting begins quite tensely, in a most uncharacteristic manner. I have to struggle against the usual tedious writers’ paranoia – the feeling that he hates the script. He asks me to read it aloud, and the atmosphere soon relaxes. (In retrospect, it is clear he had until then not been able to even open the script, and felt guilty and tense about it).

I spend both our meetings reading it to him. He corrects mistakes from time to time; but it is clear that somehow the feeling of the original is in this version. We calculate a performance of this version will take approximately six hours. More cutting is needed.

We are confronted by a kind of quarry we have to hack a play out of: but at least the material is good.

We agree to cut the character of Melibea’s mother (very dull) and merge the parts of Sosia and Tristán. Calixto undertakes to engage a young actor for the part. We agree we need to meet again before rehearsals.

I go back to Edinburgh; Calixto goes to audition an erotic trapeze artist who is to perform naked over the heads of the orchestra.

18th June [10 days to rehearsals]
Unsurprisingly, I have been unable to contact Calixto.

In between attending to university work and two other projects, I have cut the script again. We are now down to 30,138 words. I send it to Birmingham Rep.

21st June [a week to rehearsals]
I am to spend a week in Cove Park, an arts centre near Holy Loch, to devise a dance/text piece with a choreographer (Claire Pencak) and a visual artist (Brian Hartley). We visit a peat bog. The piece is to explore the way the human body stores memories (often in muscle tissue) and the way the earth stores memories (preserved in, among other places, peat bogs.

We have a wonderful week. The piece will be called THE CROSSING and will also be about transformation and transitions: from one gender to the other. From life to death. And perhaps to life again. From light to darkness; from darkness to light.

The plan is to return to Edinburgh on the 27th before travelling on to Birmingham for rehearsals to begin on the 28th.

26th June [2 days before rehearsals]
Susie, my wife, unexpectedly suffers a stroke.

In the turmoil of the next few days, the news that Calixto has cancelled the first week’s rehearsals (presumably out of exhaustion) seems completely unimportant.

5th July [6 weeks to opening]
The stroke seems to have left Susie with remarkably little lasting damage. Her eyesight has changed in ways we do not yet understand (it turns out she has lost 50% of her peripheral vision) and she feels unsteady on walking, like a sailor on dry land. It is possible for me to attend rehearsals; but imperative I leave them on July 24th.

So I travel to Birmingham for the first read through.

It starts at 12.55; it ends at 15.42. Still too long.

A basic rule of contemporary playwriting is to only use one word when one will do. One difficulty with de Rojas’ style is that he delights in using four, or five. Or six. He is so in love with language; and the knack is to try to restrain him without losing all the exhilarating linguistic flavour of the piece.

It turns out Calixto is leaving rehearsals on Wednesday morning for the opening of KING LEAR on Thursday night.

For the next day and a half, then, I go through the script with the cast speech by speech and line by line. Negotiating. The basic rule, I keep telling them, is "keep the bits you want to say". "Let your speeches give you pleasure".

The script is cut back to 20,528 words.

I return home, exhausted, to care for Susie.

12th July [5 weeks to opening]
Rehearsals begin in earnest.

Problems begin as soon as we leave sitting round the table and begin work on the floor.

Calixto and Alfons Flores, the designer, have come up with a spectacular set for the design. The whole play will take place in a subterranean bar which is a kind of metaphor for hell. As it turns out, it looks beautiful and amazing.

But unlike the very evocative and beautiful set on our last collaboration, in LIFE IS A DREAM, which was poetic and suggestive while being geographically non-specific, this set, with working beer taps and all, ties the text down to a single place. The problem is that it reduces the action of the work to a single location, when one of the beauties of the text (for me) has always been the way the narrative travels – from the garden where Calixto encounters Melibea, to Calixto’s house, to Celestina’s house (so amazingly described in the text), to Melibea’s house, and takes in the life of the streets in between.

There is something wonderfully theatrical, it has always seemed to me, in the way in which de Rojas makes the action move between these various locations. All of which is now lost.

On a more mundane level, none of the links between the scenes work any more. People announce they are leaving in the original, when in fact the stage set forces them to stay. Celestina, for instance, no longer travels to meet Melibea. Instead Melibea, for some reason, arrives to meet Celestina. So when she leaves, instead of saying: "Go with God, for neither has your coming done me good nor can your going do me harm" (p 56), she has to say "Neither has my coming done me good, nor can my going do me harm".

It’s a trivial kind of change, but has to be done again and again, at the beginning and the end of every scene. I have an obscure, and possibly unjustified, but growing sense that the texture and essence of the text is being sacrificed.

Meanwhile there are other problems. Abolishing Melibea’s house means that there is no longer a role for Lucrecia. She becomes just another whore attached to the bar: and none of her speeches make any sense any more.

Instead of hiring a young actor to play Sosia/Tristán, Calixto has engaged an experienced and extremely ambitious actor (whom he had previously worked with on HAMLET) to play… who exactly? The barman, certainly, but beyond that nobody, including the actor concerned, or me, or the dramaturg, or the assistant director, or Calixto himself seems to know.

As for the latter half of the play…. In a version of the script that began to circulate after a week or so I found myself abandoning all attempt to produce dialogue in Act thirteen. Instead I wrote:

[HERE THE PLAY DESCENDS INTO A CHAOS OF SEXUALITY AND VIOLENCE.
SEMPRONIO AND PARMENO ARE EXECUTED ON STAGE BY SOSIA.
MEANWHILE CALISTO AND MELIBEA MAKE PASSIONATE LOVE.
LUCRECIA MASTURBATES.
CALISTO IS KILLED.
LINES FROM THE ORIGINAL TEXT ARE UTTERED IN A WAY THAT DEFIES THE LOGIC OF EVERY DAY LIFE, BUT UTTERLY OBEYS THE LOGIC OF THE THEATRE.
THE LINES WILL BE CHOSEN IN THE COURSE OF REHEARSAL

And this in a document called, with absurd optimism, "script for performance final version."

A chaos: by the end of the first week (theoretically week 3) of rehearsals this fairly accurately summed up the situation. Something was certainly happening, something extraordinary: but something astonishingly close to meltdown.

For myself, I kept trying to control the chaos. Trying to codify it, write it down, reduce it to coherence. Trying to establish a script.

At night, I was trying to maintain contact with a (possibly) chronically sick partner.

I was also trying to check the proofs for publication (of a text that bore increasingly little resemblance to anything that might conceivably be performed); trying to write the introduction for said publication. And trying to write the programme note.

19th July [4 weeks to opening]
I should make it clear, perhaps, that this is not written in a spirit of apology or self-justification. For all their faults, I am proud both of the published and performed script. Nor is it written in a spirit of anger or recrimination. I retain the utmost affection and respect for Calixto Bieito both as an artist and as a human being. The actors, too, were astonishing. In their skill, their sensitivities, and their courage. The technical support from the team at Birmingham Rep was also outstanding.

I write this because it matters to put on record the extraordinary artistic risks run by everyone concerned. And because it matters to understand that such risks, however extreme, are part of the process of theatrical translation.

One personal moment later took on extraordinary importance. The night before she suffered her stroke, Susie had a phone call from a dear friend who had just discovered she was suffering from secondary cancers. She had also heard of another friend whose son, a guitarist in a rock band, had become helplessly drunk after a gig and drowned in his own vomit. She was alone that night (I was away in the artists’ retreat devising a text/dance show). To counter-attack her sadness, she went to the fridge, took out a bottle of white wine, poured herself a glass, held it up to the light, and, moved by a sudden impulse, pronounced a solitary toast: to life in all its aspects. Its dark side and its joyful side.

Her account of this moved me profoundly. It seemed utterly in keeping with the spirit of the CELESTINA. Another impulse moved me, one exhausted night after rehearsals, to insert into the proofs: "To Susie Innes, and her toast to life".

Meantime, some extraordinary things were happening.

Calixto is the opposite of the kind of dictatorial directors one associates, say, with theatrical traditions of eastern Europe. Up to a certain point, he allows his actors, like his other collaborators, an extraordinary freedom. The rehearsal room was filled odd bits of costume and props of all kinds that he encourages his actors to explore and improvise with. When their ideas are in tune with his instinctive sense of what the moment requires, he encourages and shapes them. For instance: Sarah Paul the actor playing Lucrecia, found her role reduced to being one of the whores in the bar. One day, bored and maybe a little desperate, she picked up a pair of thick ugly glasses that left her half blinded and began to rehearse wearing them. This completely changed her physicality, struck a deep imaginative chord in Calixto, and between them they evolved the vulnerable, incoherent, touching and damaged character that finally emerged in performance. Even though this character bore only a fleeting resemblance to the Lucrecia in the original text, she was nonetheless exactly right for the theatrical world that was slowly emerging.

Later, an extraordinary moment occurred when Kathryn Hunter started to improvise the auctioning of Lucrecia’s virginity:

"CELESTINA Ladies and gentlemen I have a special treat for you tonight. The lovely Lucrecia. Never been kissed. Try not to dribble so much darling. A real bargain for you tonight here in the shopping capital of Europe. A real virgin. Not a day over fifteen. A little deficient in the upper storey perhaps but gentlemen does that matter? Look at those breasts. Look at those legs. And look at those buttocks. Quite untouched. Twenty for manual, thirty for oral and forty for the full service. Specials extra and by prior arrangement. A real bargain. Do I have any bids for this gorgeous girl not a day after fifteen. A real virgin. Do I hear twelve? Only twelve? Twelve from the gentleman in row D? You should be ashamed of yourself. Come on ladies and gentlemen. Do I hear fifteen? That’s better. Fifteen twenty twenty two twenty three thirty one forty. Forty. Gentleman in the blue suit has it at forty. Forty five fifty seventy five. Any advance on seventy five? Gone to the gentleman in row D. Up you come sir. This way. Thank you very much ladies and gentlemen. Gentleman going off with his very own virgin. A gorgeous body and quite untouched. A real genuine virgin. A big round of applause."

The beginning of this story demanded it be rounded off by a moment in which Lucrecia returned, blooded and weeping:

"CELESTINA       Lucrecia.
Darling I want you to tell me something. What is this I am wearing. Prada.

LUCRECIA       Prada.

CELESTINA       Louder.

LUCRECIA       Prada.

CELESTINA       Right darling! A Prada raincoat! And tell me darling what is this? Cartier.

LUCRECIA       Cartier.

CELESTINA       Its Cartier, ladies and gentlemen, Cartier! And what is this? A fucking rolex.

LUCRECIA       A fucking Rolex.

CELESTINA       Yes! It’s a fucking Rolex! Good girl! A round of applause for the lovely Lucrecia."

These moments, developed through improvisation in a late stage in rehearsal and which I then (as it turned out, quite in vain) tried to fix in script form absolutely do not occur in the original but are so totally in accord with its spirit and theatrically so strong, so shocking and so extraordinary that they demanded to be performed.

A similar kind of revelation came when rehearsing the final scene between Calisto and Melibea. The three love scenes in the original are not, to put it kindly, the strongest in the text. I undertook to telescope them into one brief scene of about half a page:

"MELIBEA       What is your name? What is your name?

CALISTO       Calisto.

MELIBEA       Joy of my deep heart

CALISTO       Dispose of me as you will.

MELIBEA       Let us make this place a garden.
Look my love: The whole garden takes pleasure in our coming. See how clearly the moon shows this to us: see how the clouds fly away. Listen to the water running in the rivulet of this fountain, now how much sweeter is its murmur in the green grasses. Listen to the leaves of the high cypress trees, how their branches greet and caress each other thanks to the intercession of the gentle breeze which moves them. See how dark they are under their tranquil shades and how perfectly placed to hide our sweet delight.

BUT CALISTO HAS GONE."

As we began to rehearse these lines, neither I nor Calixto nor the actors (Chris Fox and Laura Rogers) had any idea of how they were to be performed or what would happen on stage. The issue of how Calisto would die, for instance, was completely unresolved.

As we rehearsed them together, it emerged that this was a post-coital moment; that Melibea was still in a drug induced state; that there was, in fact, no theatrical need to kill off Calisto at this moment. It made far more theatrical sense to imagine him simply losing interest.

24th July [3 weeks to opening]
As pre-arranged, I have to leave rehearsals. It feels madness to do so: because even now the script is still, in effect, unfinished. But I have no choice: I simply have to look after Susie.

4th, 5th August [1 day before first technical rehearsal]
I return briefly to rehearsal. But the musicians are now being integrated into the cast. There is no opportunity for script development. I note a sense of great pride and excited anticipation in most of the company. But I accomplish nothing of use. I intend to return for the dress rehearsals, knowing that often this is a moment when really crucial changes can be made.

But this is not to be.

8th August [3 days before first preview]
Susie’s condition, which had been steadily improving, takes a shocking and unexpected turn for the worse. On 11th August she is back in hospital. There is "a shadow" on her scan. It looks like a brain tumour. On 13th August a hole is drilled in her skull and a sample of tumour is removed. It confirms that it is cancerous, highly malignant, and in an advanced state of development. How long has she got? "Days", says the surgeon. "Gather the family".

16th August [opening night]
This is an opening in the shadow of death.

In a haze of weariness and grief, I still somehow manage to fret over:
the omission of the opening scene (which seems to me a bad mistake)
the lack of interval (ditto)
Melibea’s final speech (beautifully performed. But what she tells us contradicts what we have seen. I wish I had been able to make more changes in the script, to clarify)
Pleberio’s final speech (badly cut, I felt).

But none of this matters. Neither the success or failure of CELESTINA seem to me to have any importance at all.

1 February 2005
Only now, as I write this, can I begin to evaluate the experience as a whole. When I translate, I need to "feel" the words. I need to "hear" them. Calixto needs to "see": an image, right there, totally present in front of him. He seems to enter the rehearsal room without pre-conditions; he trusts that his instincts will somehow combine with the adrenalin of the moment to allow him to function. Such a process needs danger, thrives on it: he has to dice with disaster.

Sometimes his vision overrides the text. More often, though, it is absolutely in the spirit of it. And consistently he has the courage to see it through: to make his vision happen. Whatever the consequences. I have never worked with a more inspired, or more inspiring, director. "Give me pleasure" he would shout to the cast just before each run.

Give me pleasure.

Epilogue
Susie still lives. In defiance of her doctors. Mostly, she lives in a twilight zone of confusion of time and of place. She struggles to write things down, in increasingly illegible writing she herself can frequently no longer understand. But still resisting, still defying the chaos that will engulf her.

The published text, with its dedication to her, arrived just after her terminal diagnosis. It means so much to all of us.

And she did, too, manage to see the production.

And it did give her pleasure.

She still remembers the toast. "Gozos", she says, smiling. "Pleasures". And she sips the wine.

"Delicious. Utterly delicious".

John Clifford
Edinburgh, 1 February 2005.



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