Writer Gwen MacKeith joined the Presence Theatre Reading Group in May and November of 2015. Here she responds to the insight gained by hearing her translations of Griselda Gambaro's work read aloud for the first time.
I have participated twice in the Presence Theatre Reading Group. On both occasions I brought translations of plays by the acclaimed Argentine dramatist, Griselda Gambaro (1928-). Though one of the most celebrated living writers in Argentina, and a playwright of international standing, she is nevertheless little performed on the English-speaking stage. This special forum is a natural home to explore her theatre.
For several of the actors present, this was their first encounter with Griselda Gambaro and yet the group collectively attuned to her texts in ways I found exhilarating. This is one of those rare opportunities to see the first creative impulses of skilled actors at work; the freshness of that first response to a text, 'the choices conscious and unconscious' as actor Siubhan Harrison puts it. Those first impulses can often be the right ones, as I so often experience as a translator when I return to the first words I chose in an early draft, after developing a translation for some time. It was also a liberation for there to be no particular preconceptions of 'Argentine-ness' in this context, as rather than illuminating Gambaro's texts, this can often serve to block insight.
The works we have read together are from very different periods: Los siameses / Siamese Twins (1967), Sucede lo que pasa / Whatever Happens Happens (1976), De profesión maternal / Mother by Trade (1997), and Pedir demasiado / Asking Too Much (2001). To hear the plays read in quick succession was an interesting thing in itself, as it allowed for observations about the development of Gambaro's corpus over the many years she has been a practising dramatist (Gambaro began writing for the theatre in the mid 60s and continues to stage new works, the most recent being El don performed this year.)
The readings, orchestrated and conducted by Jack Tarlton, are referred to by the group as 'sight readings', and this analogy with music is apt. To treat the text as a musical score avoids the deadening effect of getting bogged down by meaning. All the actors share reading parts in the script and this creates multi-layered interpretations of the plays, as the characters are inhabited by the different voices of the actors present. When the Reading Group met in May, Gambaro was read alongside two fascinating young playwrights: Hannah Moscovitch (Canadian) and Nis-Momme Stockmann (German). Coincidentally all three dramatists shared a black humour which dared us to laugh at the bleakest of human experience: child abuse, domestic violence, mental illness and dementia. Gambaro's invitation to engage in black comedy is fundamental to her drama, and it was heartening to witness this invitation being so creatively accepted by the Reading Group. Of course, on hearing a script read it becomes evident what doesn't work about a translation, as well as offering new revelations about the play itself. I began to see things, through the voices of the actors, which I had not perceived before.
I have a conviction about the quality and significance of Gambaro's theatre. I greatly admire her unsqueamish gaze as she probes the thorniest and most indigestible of human emotions: cruelty, guilt, shame. The atmosphere of daring created by the Presence Theatre Reading Group is a fine laboratory in which to experiment with her plays in English. Here I found a rare tolerance for the ambiguity that is pivotal to Gambaro's drama. There is an inferred world in her plays, 'a shadow world' as Simon Usher described it. Of course, the great hope is that these readings will lead to other things: full productions offering the recognition in the UK that Gambaro deserves. And yet these meetings are significant happenings in themselves. I found myself moved in ways I did not expect, knowing the plays as well as I do. This is both testament to the depth of Gambaro as a dramatist, and the work of those actors who lent their imaginations and their voices for a day to bring her plays to life.