We talk to the translator of Theatre 503’s latest play about how his work can be seen as a ‘rebellious act’
The English-language premiere of one of Spain’s most celebrated young playwrights is set to hit the stage at a Battersea theatre later this month.
Cuzco, a play by Valencian playwright Víctor Sánchez Rodríguez, opens at Theatre 503 on Wednesday 23 January.
It is the first time in seven years that the theatre, found above The Latchmere pub on Battersea Park Road, has programmed a translated ‘international’ play.
This English version of the play is the fruit of a meeting between translator William Gregory and Mr Rodríguez at a ‘speed dating’ event for playwrights and translators in Madrid in 2016.
“I remember reading Cuzco among all of these plays and immediately I realised it was the one that I wanted to work on,” said Mr Gregory, who has worked on international theatre projects at The Royal Court Theatre and The Gate Theatre, among many others.
He added: “I didn’t play hard to get at all with Victor and just told him I wanted to translate his play. After that we really didn’t have much else to talk about for the remaining 25 minutes.
“He’s a fantastic writer with a brilliant way of getting under the skin of his characters and bringing out big ideas in ways that are really relatable and human and sometimes very emotional but still with plenty of poetry and humour.”
The play tells the story of a Spanish couple who travel to the Peruvian city of Cuzco – once the capital of the Inca empire – in a bid to fix their relationship.
Yet the solutions they hoped for elude them and they are instead confronted with altitude sickness, the harsh reality of their own problems and the hangover of Spain’s colonial past.
For Mr Gregory, translation is about breaking down linguistic barriers between people and encouraging people to interact with other cultures and peoples.
In response to a growing ‘tendency to close borders and create separation’, not just in the UK, but all around the world, translation can be seen as a rebellious act; a rejection of isolating nationalism that instead promotes international cooperation and cultural exchange.
Mr Gregory, who was the inaugural translator in residence at the Teatre Archiches in Alicante last autumn, said: “I would love to think that the work we do when we translate plays or novels were an antidote to the more difficult aspects of the way our world is going at the moment, and if it were going to contribute to things like more young people taking languages at school or slow down the squeeze on modern language departments at University. I certainly think it’s great to have this ambition.”
The number of students choosing to study modern languages in the UK has been in decline for over 20 years. French, German and Spanish fell by 8% last year and the number of students opting for French had dropped from 22,718 in 1996 to only 8,713 in 2018.
Mr Gregory said he would like to see more translated theatre being performed all over the UK.
He said: “In an ideal world we would have enough theatre in translation in the UK that we wouldn’t even be talking about what play is an ‘international play’. There are wonderful playwrights writing in English but there are also wonderful playwrights writing in other languages.
“A play like Cuzco is just a really good play and so you can almost take the question of translation away. This play, wherever it came from, is a really fantastic piece of work that, like all good theatre, you leave with questions about what you’ve seen and how you feel.”
Mr Gregory said his work as translator is only one part of the overall creative process that brings the play to life on stage.
He added: “As a translator I’m very clear that I’m not an adaptor. I try to make a version in English that is as close as possible to what the writer wrote in Spanish but what is interesting is then the play gets handed to the director, the actors, the lighting designer, and so on.
“It starts to develop its own life which is informed by the creativity and beautiful ideas that all of those individuals have. That’s the beauty of theatre, it’s a wonderful coming together of all of these individual who have their own skill sets and responses to the play. I’m in the midst of that.”
Mr Gregory said: “It’s not very often that a playwright from Spain has a play produced in a venue like Theatre 503. This play is fantastically written by Victor. He creates a situation that is totally absorbing, mysterious and moving. One that is sometimes very funny, but also thought provoking.
“The team that has come to put it together is of such a high quality that every day I’m seeing it grow and grow and can’t wait to see it explode onto the stage.”
Cuzco runs until Saturday 16 February at Theatre503 in Battersea.