Mon 09 Oct
A decade or more ago, a friend who was moving to a smaller property and needed to dispose of some of her books gave me a copy of Alain-Rene Lesage’s play Turcaret, in an English translation.
I’d actually met the translator, John Norman, at his house, but I’d missed the 1988 production of the play, at the Gate Theatre, London, for which his translation had served as the text. Another friend, Ishia Bennison, who’d acted in it, told me that the play had been great fun to do. Really? To me its world of ‘tax-farmers’ (what the hell were they?) seemed impossibly remote. Read it again, she said, it’s a play about money, and nothing’s more topical than money. So I did. Two or three times. And finally began to see how funny it was.
I’d have liked to tell John Norman that, but he died earlier this year, before I could. Still, he was pleased to hear that the play might be revived. And who better to revive it than Northern Broadsides?
It’s 21 years now since my first collaboration with Barrie Rutter, The Cracked Pot – an adaptation of a Kleist play in which (as well as directing) he took the leading role. By my count there’ve been seven more collaborations since, with adaptations of plays written in German, Italian, Russian and Ancient Greek – plus one, in Geordie, that required only minor adjustments for it to be Yorkshire-fied. That’s been the pattern: wherever and whenever the original play is set, I try to render it in a language that’s true to Rutter’s allegiance to northern speech. Instead of RP, it becomes NBI – Northern Broadsides Idiom.
Lesage’s play was first performed over 300 years ago, in 1709. At the time, during the reign of Louis XIV, the monarchy delegated the duty of tax-gathering to rich financiers, those so-called tax-farmers, who exploited the poor and made themselves huge profits in the process. The establishment hated the play and it was withdrawn after only seven performances. But its satire on capitalistic ruthlessness hit home.
For this version, the only farmer to appear keeps sheep, and the setting has moved from eighteenth-century Paris to a small Yorkshire town in the late 1920s – with the great Crash of 1929 looming ahead. The central figure is manager of the local bank, called Fuller, who spends less time at work than at the house of a young widow, Rose, to whom he pays court. Rose seems more taken with a younger man, Arthur, son of a local doctor – a cousin of hers, she tells Fuller, not a love rival. Can she be trusted? Can the opportunistic, avaricious Arthur be trusted? Can even Fuller be trusted? And what about young Jack, who runs errands for both Arthur and Fuller – is he a put-upon member of the underclass or a cunning operator? In a daft but horribly recognizable world of romance, greed, lies and sexual shenanigans, it’s impossible to know what’s what and who to believe.
‘Make a new play of it,’ Rutter encouraged me, and so I have, up to a point, drawing on John Norman’s version but also moving scenes around and giving more dialogue to minor characters. I’m on the second draft now, though since I revise as I go along it’s more like the tenth. However many it is, there’ll be more writing to do before the play opens, with all traces of stiff translationese eliminated so that what’s left – to quote Wordsworth – is the language really spoken by men (and women).