In anticipation of London Student’s review of Cheek by Jowl’s new production of Péricles at the Barbican Theatre, Stephen Hills exchanged questions with actress Cécile Leterme in an attempt to get to the heart of the production.
Pericles, Prince of Tyre has incest, shipwrecks, knights, a resurrection, Greek goddesses, pirates, sex trafficking, brothels, kings and religious apparitions, not to mention textual inconsistencies and moments of tender spirituality. Has Cheek by Jowl’s production tried to keep all these chaotic elements at play or pared down to a particular reading of the play?
CL: Well, actually, I think we manage to do both! We’ve staged the play in a French hospital where a man moves in and out of consciousness, finding his reality to be a mix of his Shakespearean memory and the ward around him. I think it’s fair to say therefore that Declan Donnellan [the director] has a very specific reading of the play, focussing on the protagonist’s trauma and recovery, but at the same time this reading manages to keep everything else in – all the play’s wild and mad perambulations.
SH: It really is a curiosity of a play; there are elements of comedy, romance, tragedy, satire, horror and farce. Sometimes it can be difficult to work out if Shakespeare and his collaborator George Wilkins are poking fun at theatrical conventions or just revelling in them. How do you think it fits in with the rest of Shakespeare’s canon?
CL: This play is indeed quite different from the rest of the canon. I also wondered at one point if the accumulation of dramatic events had a satirical aspect to it. But now, having worked on the play, I feel that the very accumulation of fortune and misfortune helps to emphasize the central moment in the play: the tender reconciliation of a man with his wife and daughter.
SH: The play is also about governance, migration and the experience of refugees. Ultimately, like you say, it is quite optimistic, a tale of healing, reconciliation and the responsibility we have towards those in need. Is this a message that resonates right now?
CL: Well, of course, in France, as in the rest of Europe, this is an absolutely essential message right now. Europe is being asked challenging questions at the moment and it can be useful to look for answers in the texts of the past, or if not for answers exactly, then at least for an emotional connection to these questions. We are performing the play in French, as you know, reworking the first translation of Pericles by Francois Guizot. He was a nineteenth-century politician and historian who wrote about the theatre’s ability to speak to new historical and social contexts. Shakespeare will always do this; he speaks to us as men and women, as humans, no matter when we live. In this play, he speaks to the contemporary moment by reminding us about the individuals we see in the news, travelling, migrating, and fleeing from place to place.
SH: Many luminaries of French letters have translated Shakespeare into French, from Voltaire to Francois-Victor Hugo – Victor Hugo’s son – to Maeterlinck. Am I right in saying that you’ve also translated Shakespeare for the French stage?
CL: Yes, I translated Romeo and Juliet, adapting it into a short one and a half hour version. I’ve also translated As You Like It and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I am firstly an actor, but I have also built up experience in translation and so sometimes get the opportunity to do more.
SH: What are the challenges of translating Shakespeare into French today?
CH: I believe, firstly, that if somebody translates Shakespeare today, she or he will bring into the work their personality and contemporary moment. That is inevitable, not something that is necessarily conscious, as such; it is just a part of the process. But, secondly, it is important, to work with the director, to build towards a collective vision.
SH: ‘Building towards a collective vision’ feels a little like language borrowed from a bygone European dream, at least from this side of the channel. At a time of increased nationalism and the souring of Anglo-European relations, was it a deliberate political act to stage the great master of English Literature in French?
CH: I think the first political act is to keep British and French people working together. In that way, this company [Cheek by Jowl’s French Company] is very important. I can’t say if Brexit was a direct motivation for staging the play this time. Declan has put the play on before, of course [in 1984]. But in this manifestation the play has become about emigration and our relationship to our neighbours, so I think that translation itself – it’s difficulties and delights – is naturally a part of that conversation.
SH: This is the third production Cheek by Jowl have made with that French production company. The last was Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, the absurdist masterpiece that when first performed in 1896 didn’t get far past its first line, ‘Mierdre!’, so enraged were the Parisian bourgeoisie. How does performing in Ubu Roi compare with Pericles?
CH: As in Ubu, each cast member plays many different characters while utilizing a unique set that transforms into many different places. In many ways it’s an opportunity to revisit stage relationships that have developed during our previous productions. The two plays are very different, of course. At the end of Ubu, the set was a mess and so were we: dirty, full of sweat, water and ketchup! With this production, we’re not as messy. But the excitement of the production is just the same!
Péricles, Prince de Tyr runs at the Barbican Theatre until the 21st April, 2018.