Stage Struck

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - OPINION -

Peter Craw­ley fol­lows Garbo from Done­gal to Poland

The real voy­age of dis­cov­ery, wrote Proust, is not to seek new land­scapes but to find new eyes. Okay, it’s a cliche, a busi­ness-class motto that seems eroded by em­i­gra­tion and voy­ages of ne­ces­sity. But can you still travel to lose your­self, find your­self, or at least to see things dif­fer­ently?

Such ques­tions en­tered my head the other week while watch­ing a Swedish icon of Amer­i­can film in an Ir­ish play given a Pol­ish pro­duc­tion. I also won­dered, in pleas­ant be­wil­der­ment, why Greta Garbo had a sex change.

The play was Frank McGuin­ness’s fic­tion­alised ac­count of a real visit made by the “great gloomy Swede” to an Ir­ish Big House in the late 1960s. On the page, Greta Garbo Came to Done­gal is a flu­ent il­lus­tra­tion of tan­gled national and sex­ual iden­ti­ties in text­book nat­u­ral­is­tic style. Which is why an Ir­ish spec­ta­tor might be sur­prised when the per­for­mance halts for a minute and the en­tire cast dance the Valentina Twist, a Com­mu­nist-era pop song ded­i­cated to Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space. It was a ges­ture not so much lost in trans­la­tion as spun gen­tly out of or­bit.

Greta Garbo Came to Done­gal opened in Lon­don in 2010 and its Pol­ish trans­la­tion just de­buted at the Kon­tra­punkt fes­ti­val in Szczecin, where a new col­lec­tion of McGuin­ness’s plays was also pub­lished.

I was fas­ci­nated at how the di­rec­tor, Anna Au­gustynow­icz, had de­fused var­i­ous prob­lems (yet cre­ated oth­ers), and was deeply en­vi­ous of her lib­erty-tak­ing. An Ir­ish pre­miere would have fret­ted as much as the Lon­don pre­miere did about find­ing a dead ringer for Garbo while ob­serv­ing the let­ter of the text.

The Pol­ish ver­sion cut out stretches of dia­logue and cast the mag­nif­i­cently hair­less Ma­ciej Wierzbicki (whose other stage cred­its in­clude play­ing one of the leads in a play called Testos­terone) and no­body blinked. That ap­proach made some over­wrought sym­bols clang a lit­tle harder, but the pro­duc­tion seized on the play’s more sub­ver­sive ele­ments. In trav­el­ling, it had found it­self.

It seemed sim­i­lar from a Pol­ish point of view. Here, an au­di­ence anx­iously alert to how a coun­try could be lost and re­trieved in seem­ingly end­less cy­cles watched the pre­vi­ous own­ers of the house now work­ing for their English mas­ter. It made you re­con­sider the Valentina Twist and the grav­ity of Com­mu­nism; no­body was danc­ing around the is­sue.

At a sem­i­nar de­voted to McGuin­ness, the writer was com­pared in im­por­tance to Shake­speare and ad­dressed as a dis­tant kins­man. I was struck, though, by Au­gustynow­icz’s ex­pla­na­tion of how her en­sem­ble brought Ire­land and Poland closer to­gether, not by sketch­ing any his­tor­i­cal or ge­o­graph­i­cal con­text, but by look­ing deeply and dif­fer­ently at them­selves.

“We put the play in our own words and it crosses na­tion­al­ity and bor­ders,” she said.

Now, I thought, you’re speak­ing our lan­guage.

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