Shakespeare in Adaptation and Translation

Posted on: October 16th, 2018 by Leah Reddy


In Bernhardt/Hamlet, actress Sarah Bernhardt struggles to remember and make sense of Hamlet’s 1500 lines. She commissions playwright Edmond Rostand to rewrite Hamlet, asking him to take the plot of Shakespeare’s famous play and create a faster and more direct version. As Rostand says, “It is Hamlet without the poetry.”

Title Page of First Folio. Credit: William Shakespeare

How Shakespeare’s Language Works
Shakespeare didn’t invent the stories of his plays: he borrowed them from books, English history, and current events. Hamlet is based on a Norse legend called Amleth, written in Latin in a book called History of the Danes. Shakespeare’s unique contribution to the theatre isn’t plot; it’s how he uses language to create character and tell the story.

Shakespeare’s plays, written between 1590 and 1612, were created for a theatre very different from modern-day Broadway and very different from Bernhardt’s theatre in Paris in 1899. His works were originally performed during the day in a round theatre, open to the sky, for 3,000 audience members who filled the building, many standing around the stage. Audiences ate, drank, cheered, and booed. Actors were costumed, but few set pieces were used.

Audiences were accustomed to getting information aurally (through listening) rather than through seeing images or constantly reading. Shakespeare’s characters often “paint a picture” of the scene with their words, as Horatio does when he says “the dead vast and middle of the night.” Additionally, the poetry of Shakespeare—the rhythm and the sound of the words—reinforces the meaning of the lines and helps the audience understand what’s happening.

When Hamlet says, “To be or not to be—that is the question,” for example, the short syllables and staccato consonants indicate that Hamlet is thinking quickly, trying to make sense of something. The words be, not, and be are the first stressed syllables; even if an audience member isn’t paying close attention, or there’s noise around him, he catches the most important words.

Shakespeare’s plays are popular around the globe: in the past 60 years there have been productions of Hamlet in more than 75 languages, including Klingon, a language invented for the television series “Star Trek.” A literary translation of Shakespeare is an attempt to put Shakespeare’s text fully into another language, maintaining all of the characters, settings, and dramatic moments of the original. Translators may choose slightly different words in the language in order to preserve the sense of the line, as we see in this German translation:

O, that this too, too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew.

O daß dieses allzu—allzu—feste Fleisch schmelzen und in Thränen aufgelöst zerrinnen möchte!

A word-by-word rendering of the German reveals that the translator chose to use Thränen, the word for tears, rather than Tau, the German word for dew, in order to best convey the meaning of what Hamlet is saying.

Translators likewise seek to preserve the effect of the rhythm in Shakespeare’s plays, called iambic pentameter, in which each line has ten syllables, and syllables alternate between unstressed and stressed. This presents a challenge when translating into languages that do not have stressed syllables. Korean poetry is based on syllable counts. Hyonu Lee, a professor at Soon Chun Hyang University in South Korea, recently translated Hamlet. Lee used a pattern of Korean poetry in which three syllables are followed by four syllables because, like iambic pentameter, it mimics the rhythm of the human heart and breath and takes about the same amount of time to speak. Interestingly, Bernhardt performed her adaptation of Hamlet in her native French.

A play is adapted when it’s changed to suit a different medium, audience, or cultural context. Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 Romeo + Juliet film, set in contemporary times and featuring a pop music soundtrack, is an adaptation that uses the original text of the play. West Side Story, the 1961 stage musical, transfers the plot, but not the language, of Romeo and Juliet to an immigrant neighborhood on the Upper West Side in the 1950s. Kiss Me, Kate (which will open at Roundabout’s Studio 54 on Valentine’s Day of 2019) is a 1948 musical adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew; set during production of a musical, the main characters are the director and leading lady, a far cry from Shakespeare’s Katherine and Petruchio of 15th century Italy. Turning to tragedy, Ran is a 1985 Japanese film that merges the plot of King Lear with the legend of a Japanese warlord. Ran employs both translation and adaptation, changing the language, medium, and context of Shakespeare’s play. More recently, Vishal Bhardwaj, an Indian filmmaker, produced Haidar, a 2014 Hindi-language adaptation of Hamlet. Haidar, a student, returns to his family home in Kashmir during a 1995 insurgency to find his father missing and his mother too friendly with his uncle.

David Garrick as Hamlet. Credit: Library of Congress

Bernhardt wasn’t the first to produce an adaptation of Hamlet, nor was she last. Producers and actors have often altered Shakespeare’s text to fit their visions and the needs of their audiences. In 1772, the famous actor and producer David Garrick adapted Hamlet to make the play more palatable to his audiences and critics. He shortened Hamlet’s speeches, restored parts of the play that had been omitted in previous productions, and cut the gravediggers’ scene and much of the fifth act, radically altering the play’s ending. In the 19th century, producers went even further with alterations of Shakespeare, performing a happily-ever-after version of King Lear in which Lear lives and Cordelia takes the throne with her soon-to-be husband, Edgar.

Translation or Adaptation?
In 2016, Oregon Shakespeare Festival commissioned 36 playwrights to “translate” each line of Shakespeare’s plays into contemporary English, without altering the story, characters, or setting. The language Shakespeare wrote in is called Early Modern English, and English has evolved continuously since his time. Modern audiences aren’t often familiar with Shakespeare’s vocabulary, and allusions to 16th-century culture—things like falconry, fencing, or Greek myth—mean nothing to contemporary theatregoers. The line-by-line nature of this translation project puts the focus on making the play understood by audiences.

Learn more about OSF’s Translating Shakespeare Project here:

Bernhardt/Hamlet is playing at the American Airlines Theatre through November 18, 2018. For tickets and information, please visit our website.

Related Categories:
2018-2019 Season, Bernhardt/Hamlet

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Interview with Stockard Channing

Posted on: October 11th, 2018 by Ted Sod


Education Dramaturg Ted Sod spoke with actor Stockard Channing about her work on Apologia.

Stockard Channing is Kristin Miller. Photo by Luke Fontana.

Ted Sod: Why did you choose to play the role of Kristin in Alexi Kaye Campbell’s play, Apologia? Is it challenging remounting a play with new people when you’ve done it before?

Stockard Channing: It’s really quite simple: I read the play, I thought it was terrific and that it was a wonderful turn. Todd Haimes came and saw the play in London. It might’ve been our last performance, I don't know, and he fell in love with it. There was no way we could bring the original production or director to New York, so this is a different cast and a different director.

This is not the first time that I’ve done this sort of thing. I did this before, you know, with John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation. I went to London and did it in the West End after the New York premiere, and it was a massive hit. I had to start fresh there, and then I did the film version with all new people. It’s a very interesting enterprise. Daniel Aukin, the director for the NYC production, Alexi, the playwright, and I are starting to get to know each other, and so far, so good.

TS: Did you have to reach to find Kristin’s political self or is that something you immediately understood?

SC: I must tell you that my approach to these things is extremely empirical. I avoid doing any of that until I get with my fellow actors in a rehearsal hall. It’s an interesting piece in that everything takes place in the moment in real time, but it’s all about what happened 30 years ago. And that’s something that is easily overlooked when you’re on the stage. Playing this woman, the most amazing thing I found is that the whole issue of parenting is fraught with people’s emotions. In many ways, this is a memory play. This is about the memory of something that happened years ago and the ramifications of that event. Kristin was forced to make a very difficult decision, and the consequences of that decision were and still are beyond her control. That’s what I have found to be most poignant about this character.

TS: I'm curious about the fact that Kristin is a respected art historian. Is the art world something you feel a natural affinity to, or did you have to do some research on that?

SC: I have a lot of friends who are painters, but it’s not germane to this—basically Kristin found her passion. I was more interested in the chronology of events. I remember the first days of rehearsal in London, I said, “Wait a minute, when did she have these kids? How old are we all now? When did she get divorced?” So, we spent time laying it all out.

TS: Will you share some of that chronology or history you’ve discovered about Kristin?

SC: She was a young woman who grew up in Connecticut. She had a rebellious streak, and after college, she bolted. She went to London. She fell in with a wild bunch. There was lots of protesting and free love. Those were the days. They were fabulous, but they have unfortunately yielded some negative consequences as well. In Kristin’s case, she fell in love with a guy who was dashing—that’s what she says about him. It was probably a bad match, but they had these two boys who she adored. She started working at her passion, which was art. Kristin was a victim, because that husband of hers did what he did. And she was powerless on many levels. I don’t think Kristin’s ex was the nicest guy, but she fell in love with him. No one gets married to get divorced. There’s a point when a couple is splitting up, where you still think, he’s the person I fell in love with! She certainly never thought that he would poison their sons against her. She went to Florence after the divorce. This is the important thing. She had custody of those boys and she took them to Florence and her ex stole them. Literally, physically stole them. And then, after the ex-husband dies at some point, I'm not sure when, she moves back to England and she sees her sons on a regular basis. By this time, they’re grown children and, of course, she has her opinions about what they are doing with their lives, as many parents do about their children.

TS: One of the ideas I took away from reading this play is that some women were and still are vilified for having a career, especially if they are perceived as having prioritized that career over being a mother.

SC: When I was in London and I was doing press for the play, I had to say over and over again that I remember what it was like before. I was raised in the time before women’s liberation. And that’s so important because I know what we were liberated from. It’s a very different world we live in now. And, in my day, it really wasn’t about anger—it was about charity and equal rights. But that’s not the point of this play. This play is about Kristin’s self-determination. When I was a young woman, you had to take full responsibility for your actions. And it was an absolutely delicious prospect. It was unbelievably heavy, and it happened to a large degree for those of us who chose to take advantage of it. Kristin’s not an angel, but she is honest and she took responsibility for the choices she made. I respect that about her enormously.

Stockard Channing and Hugh Dancy. Photo by Jenny Anderson.

TS: I think what you’re talking about is Kristin’s integrity. There’s an integrity to her that I don’t find many people opting for anymore.

SC: Absolutely.

TS: I want to ask you about Kristin’s relationship to her sons’ significant others, Trudi and Claire. What do you think is going on there?

SC: Her relationship with Trudi evolves—she thinks there’s potential for something in Trudi. She respects that Trudi’s not full of shit. At the end of the play, Trudi does emerge as a moral center. Her relationship with Claire, on the other hand, is fraught. First of all, she doesn’t approve of her. She feels that she’s done bad things to her son. She senses a certain kind of phoniness in her that, in her mind, makes Claire a bit of a social climber. But let’s face it, I wouldn’t want Kristin as a mother-in-law—would you?

TS: Kristin’s in a platonic relationship with a gay man named Hugh. John (Joey) Tillinger is playing that role—which is marvelous because I don't know him as an actor at all, only as a director.

SC: I believe the last time Joey was on the stage in New York was when we were acting together in Joe Egg. And we’ve been friends ever since. I think Hugh and Kristin are old, old friends. And he became friends with her when they were in the movement together. They’re about the same age and they come from a certain way of thinking—they take balancing freedom and responsibility very seriously.

TS: They’re companions on some level, wouldn’t you say?

SC: I have a similar relationship with my oldest, closest friend. We’ve been in each other’s lives since we were in our early 20s, and we lived together in apartments over the years, and this, that and the other. I certainly understand the nature of that relationship. Hugh and Kristin know and respect each other inside out.

TS: Are there any special traits that you look for from a director when you’re working?

SC: I don’t respond very well to nasty people. You know what I mean? I really respond to warmth, intelligence—I don’t like being manipulated. As I said, I'm an empirical actress. I like when we discover things in rehearsal together—that’s really the energy that I most enjoy in a rehearsal room. I’ve been pretty lucky most of the time.

Apologia is playing at the Laura Pels Theatre through December 16, 2018. For tickets and information, please visit our website.

Related Categories:
2018-2019 Season, Apologia

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Bernhardt/Hamlet Design Statements

Posted on: October 9th, 2018 by Roundabout


Dylan Baker, Jason Butler Harner, Janet McTeer, and Matthew Saldivar. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Beowulf Boritt - Set Design
I knew Sarah Bernhardt’s name, of course. But I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t know much more than that she was a very famous, turn-of-the-19th century actor. I learned more as I started to research this project. I felt like the set had to hint at some of the breadth and excess of her life. At the same time, she is reported to have been a sublime actress. As the play says, an actor’s fame is written on water, and we can only take her contemporaries’ word that she was a genius actor. In designing the set, I was trying to encompass these two parts of who she was.

Set model for Cyrano de Bergerec. Credit: Beowulff Boritt.

Moritz von Stuelpnagel, the director, and I discussed how an actor speaking a playwright’s words has the power to create an entire world out of thin air. That is the soul of live theatre. We discussed creating a nearly empty black void for the rehearsal scenes where we see Janet McTeer as Sarah speaking parts of Hamlet, creating the world of Hamlet with just words. And we wanted to contrast that with

her dressing room, her inner sanctum which displays the excess and opulence of her life.

We tried many ideas, but finally settled on a skeletal world that implies the spaces where the story plays out: Sarah’s theatre, her dressing room, the streets of Paris, and Edmond Rostand’s study. It has enough realism to tell us where we are but also is open and ephemeral enough to fade away into darkness and let us just hear the words. Late in the show we have a brief moment where we see a scene from Cyrano de Bergerac, and that’s the one place we are trying to represent late 19th century stagecraft in all its opulence and glory.

Costume Sketch of Sarah Bernhardt. Credit: Toni-Leslie James.

Toni-Leslie James - Costume Design
I approached the design of Bernhardt/Hamlet acutely aware of the challenge presented in creating the physical embodiment of the great Sarah Bernhardt as portrayed, in my opinion, by the equally gifted Janet McTeer. I was excited for the opportunity to design late 19th century costumes in their various environments: rehearsal, studio, and in performance on stage. The heightened costumes of the 19th century stage are beautiful, over scale, and somewhat comical to the contemporary eye, which made the design assignment particularly appealing to me. I try to look past the characters of Madame Sarah, Rostand and Constant as historical icons of the theatre and seek to convey the human spirit, to be able to fully communicate the life condition of all the characters through the costumes on the stage. My process begins like every designer—with a great deal of costume research and numerous conversations regarding the vision of the production with the director. I find fabric sourcing the most enjoyable aspect of costume design. The men’s suit fabric of the period is heavy, 15 ounces, and contributes to the beauty of the tailoring in their ability to hold their shape. I was thrilled to find these from a men’s suiting manufacturer in London. The lace for women’s costumes had period-specific patterns in their design, and I found the most amazing laces from a lace manufacturer in Latvia who specializes in making lace for lingerie. Being able to create with fabrics as close to the original 19th century fabrics as possible was very satisfying.

Janet McTeer. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Bradley King - Lighting Design
When Moritz von Stuelpnagel and I first sat down to discuss the designs for Bernhardt/Hamlet, a dreaded theatrical term arose—“magic realism.” This term arises in all sorts of contexts and discussions, usually in graduate school, and hardly anyone can agree on what exactly "magic realism" means. But in our context, the definition became clear: the ability of the light in Bernhardt/Hamlet to remain firmly rooted in a naturalistic reality while still allowing for moments of heightened gestures. This could mean a moonlight that's just a touch bluer than normal, a slightly over-dramatic shaft of backlight in an otherwise empty space, or the ability to play with color and angle in ways that lend tension, romance, and passion to scenes that might not be strictly believable in real life. As I write these words, the beginning of technical rehearsals, which is when I truly begin my job in earnest, are almost two months away. We have met, discussed, and poured over Beowulf's model, discussing our initial thoughts about each scene and how they might play, but all our talk of lighting exists only in our minds. A comfort with the unknown, with the ability to be surprised in the room, truly must be one of a lighting designer's greatest strengths. Will any of these initial thoughts make it onto the stage? I cannot wait to find out!

Fitz Patton - Sound Design and Original Music
The musical world of Bernhardt/Hamlet is synonymous with the world of the orchestra. Which, of course, brings a host of concerns and complexities, as well as rich aural opportunities. The expressive range of the orchestra, its mass and its power, has become a repository for lives lived on an epic scale. The orchestra presents a world that is aurally and visually massive and dimensional. Given that Theresa Rebeck’s play features an intersection of four extraordinary individuals—Sarah Bernhardt, Edmond Rostand, Shakespeare, and the title character in Hamlet—the orchestra suggested to me the power, ambition, tenderness, and courage exemplified by these artists and their work. This was a thrilling discovery because I’ve long wished to return to the orchestra for inspiration. Plays pass through the lives of designers, giving us the opportunity to touch upon aspects of our creative selves in ways that are unique. Bernhardt/Hamlet opened my heart and gave me an instant thrill because it asked me to engage with art and life as boldly and ambitiously as the characters who fill its pages do. If we tell the story well, perhaps you too will look at life from the massive landscape of your exuberant heart. I hope you enjoy the ride.

Bernhardt/Hamlet is playing at the American Airlines Theatre through November 18, 2018. For tickets and information, please visit our website.

Related Categories:
2018-2019 Season, Bernhardt/Hamlet

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