By Laura Silva *, translated by Jessica Sequeira
I don’t remember my answer, but I do know that from that moment I paid a great deal of attention to the question of language. What I call ‘the problem of translation’.
But that’s just the start. There are other factors involved in a staging of Shakespeare in Latin America, which make it both much more complex and at the same time very simple. Why? Complex because the historical, topographical and situational elements, among others, can seem completely foreign. Simple, because Shakespeare dedicated himself to portraying the essence of man in his fullest expression, and our work today simply has to do with finding that essence and portraying it again.
The question is how.
As far as the personal goes, I work in Buenos Aires and am constantly searching for and finding modern and local references, elements that belong to the culture and idiosyncrasy of my city and allow me to adapt the text to make it more enjoyable and closer to home for local viewers.
That doesn’t mean cheapening the original work in the slightest. If I’m convinced of anything, it’s that Shakespeare has presented us –dramatists all over the world– with the permanent possibility of reinvention. He himself reinvented constantly, both himself and his era, as he too was a ‘modern’ dramatist.
And so my productions include a ‘Richard III’ staged with clowns, who arrive with simplicity and innocence to tell the story of the tyrannous king. The clown responsible for interpreting Richard gradually starts losing his innocence to become a real tyrant, just like his character.
What were the local and contemporary aspects in that case?
They lie in the fact that in those days Argentina was emerging from an important crisis with its ruling class, when the necessity of eliminating tyrants from the upper echelons of power became very intense. They also have to do with a detail very unique to my country: when Queen Elizabeth protests to Richard about her dead sons, he gives no other response than that ‘all that happened in the past’. In the performance I chose for him to beat her physically, so that the clown loses her wig in the attack. In the final scene with the ghosts, she appears onstage with a white headscarf covering her head, protesting for her dead sons: a very important reference in my country to the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo with their ongoing protest for their disappeared sons during the military dictatorship, which reigned in Argentina between 1976 and 1983 and still hurts us as a society.
Later, in a highly adapted version of ‘Othello’, I worked with the material to set it in the Buenos Aires of the ’40s, when Italian Mafia families operated (later they were completely erradicated). I found that the Mafia organises itself in a way nearly identical to that of the militia in ‘Othello’, so I made Othello the godfather and Iago an ex-consigliere, among other elements. For the first time in my career, the necessity also emerged to ‘vosear’ the text – that is, to change the speech into the ‘vos’ conjugation characteristic of the city of Buenos Aires.
During that period, another dramatist in my city (Andrés Bazzalo) staged the same material, taking the War of Paraguay as a reference. His version was excellent.
Next I worked on a local ‘Macbeth’, a local ‘Hamlet’ and a ‘Lucrecia’ staged in Rome and conceived for a Roman public. Now I am preparing a ‘Titus Andronicus’ in which the struggle is between not Romans and Goths, but city dwellers and inhabitants of the suburban periphery – currently a significant problem in my city and our society.
Going beyond the anecdotal elements of each experience, the interest in bringing Shakespeare to Latin America lies precisely in ‘Latin Americanizing’ the plays.
That implies fieldwork, in order to find those references which help our public better identify with the characters, so that it is moved by them and feels them as the extremely human figures they are. It doesn’t matter if they are kings… we as a society were born a republic two hundred years ago, and haven’t experienced or don’t recognize complex dynastic plots. But we haven’t lacked for tyrants, deaths, and extreme violence in our two hundred years of history.
In that sense, Shakespeare makes himself present in an obvious way.
I am in regular contact with other Latin American dramatists who create from what is unique to their societies, from their own local and global realities. This kind of adaptation is a phenomenon in crescendo, that I don’t feel –though I might be wrong– is going to end quickly, but rather is only beginning.
As I said at the start, I work in Buenos Aires, but the experience of staging ‘The Rape of Lucrecia’ in Rome made me reconsider whether I only want to work in this city or whether I want to bring this playwriting method of intervention in another’s work –which contains performative elements that identify me, such as the use of images and music like opera, another of my formative influences– to other parts of my country and eventually, why not, other parts of Latin America.
Of course, the lack of funding makes the task difficult, though not impossible.
My hope is to be able to show the rest of the world how we stage Shakespeare in Latin America, which is by appealing to local historical resources (the War of Paraguay, military dictatorships, economic crises, the independence period, and so on) as well as indiosyncratic cultural elements like the Pacha Mama, carnaval, murga, and suburban cumbia or so-called cumbia villera –a very recent cultural reference– among others.
To me, the job of creating plays that are both comprehensible and beautiful is wonderfully satisfying.
To sum up, Willie (as I like to call Shakespeare) conceived of his works in a society shot through with political and social conflicts, with a violence existing very close to the surface. These elements identify Latin America as well, as its societies are younger than those in Europe, and both more flexible and more easily broken.
A Latin American Shakespeare is not a utopia. Today it is a reality.
*Director, playwright, actress and teacher specializing in the work of William Shakespeare
Member of the International Shakespeare Association
Contributor to the Cambridge University Press
Permanent contributor to the Teatro Shakespeare de Buenos Aires