Fundación Shakespeare Argentina (Argentinean Shakespeare Foundation or FSA) has done some remarkable work during its three years of existence. Not only has it gathered many texts about Shakespeare in Argentina and assembled them into a large online platform, but it has also encouraged the promotion and discussion of Shakespeare’s works in a country where the Bard is seldom adapted or performed.
The FSA is currently sponsoring a lovely version of As You Like It, which is being performed every Wednesday in the theatre La Comedia. The director is Jorge Azurmendi, who has already produced a local version of Twelfth Night and was in charge of an adaptation of Othello. Aside from the intervals of modern music that replace Lord Amiens’ traditional songs (including this wonderful version of What Is This Thing Called Love by Mike Zubi), this Spanish language production follows Shakespeare’s original text closely. In Buenos Aires, audiences have been widely receptive, and this version of As You Like It has increased Shakespeare’s visibility among the Argentinian public. I recently had the privilege to interview Jorge Azurmendi to speak about Shakespeare in Spanish, literary classics, and the play itself.
The play begins with Lord Amiens singing and asking the spectators What is this thing called love? Do you think that Shakespeare gives us an answer to this?
Yes, I think he presents us a wide spectrum of possibilities; he leaves all the questions about love open and shows us everything there is to know about passion. Shakespeare is amazing, and that’s something wonderful about him: he takes everything in, doesn’t leave anything behind.
Yes, and there are a lot of stories he tells…
Of course, Shakespeare’s stories are always stories with a handful of characters and all of them, even the smallest one, reaches immortality. Hamlet’s [gravedigger] speaks only two lines, but those two lines left him forever in the history of literature. So, suddenly, even the smallest and secondary characters are provided with a great humanity.
Yes, there are a lot of Shakespeare’s secondary characters that are very important in pop culture. Is there anyone in this play that resonates particularly with you?
Well, not anyone, everyone. This play is amazing: for starters we have Rosalind, which is the big axis of the play and one of Shakespeare’s most beautiful characters. Rosalind has a very feminine speech that turns her into a dream character for any actress, while she is also an educator, because you listen to her and those texts are, even today, more contemporary than the texts written in our time. But then we also have the melancholic Jacques, who has that wonderful monologue in which he speaks about the seven stages of men. We also have the Duke in exile with the speech in which he says “Are not these woods/More free from peril than the envious court?” and has wonderful philosophical verses at the beginning. Then we have the lovers, Phebe and Silvius, who mirror unrequited love and who meet everything Rosalind has to say about vanity: “’Tis not her glass, but you that flatters her” or “sell when you can; you are not for all markets”–both said to Phebe, and both being very wise speeches.
Were they very hard to translate?
I read many translations, but the problem with Shakespeare is that we already lose the original, so we evidently have to partially rewrite it. What I also see in the translations to Spanish, which are mostly made by the Academy, is that they use personal pronouns that are not used in everyday Argentinian Spanish, like tú or vosotros. They are cleaner, if you will, but we don’t speak that way here and that’s why many people often feel distant from Shakespeare. Even the title is strange in most of the translations: they all call it Como Gustéis, which is beautiful but doesn’t belong to us in Argentina and does not belong to Shakespeare either, so we tried to bring it closer to our contemporary language. We also changed the personal pronouns, shifting tú for vos [different pronouns used in neutral Spanish and Argentinian Spanish], which is quickly absorbed by the language in the play and the audience often acknowledges because they can listen to Shakespeare from a place that they are not used to, as we are often presented versions that are mediated by the language. When the spectators listen to these closer versions, with wise, human and universal texts, they are surprised by verses like “men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love,” and there is also a big identification.
Another thing that is also very attractive about your production is that you chose female actresses to represent certain masculine roles. Does it have to do with being somehow faithful to the old performances, that had masculine performers in feminine roles, or is it aimed to treat the gender issues on the play?
It has to do with both. I had already directed Twelfth Night, in which Feste was played by Melania Lenoir, Sir Toby Belch by Rita Terranova, and Malvolio by Luz Kerz, all of them women. I like this because when the speech is so universal and so human it is genderless; it may fluctuate between female and male body and both of them are valid and legit. The speech and the art place the charters in gender equality. But there is also, certainly, a kind of rematch against so much oppression of women that couldn’t do this and that, and I want to ask “why not?” What is it that women can’t do? However, the fundamental idea is that the speech is so human and universal that it does not matter whether it is told by a woman or a man, it reaches us with the same power.
And Ganymede shows that to us, for example.
Of course, that too. In the case of Ganymede it is already Rosalind who dresses herself as a woman to help Orlando be a more mature lover, and she’s able to say, in disguise, things that women were perhaps not allowed to say at that time.
This is not your first Shakespeare play, neither is this your first classic.
Yes, I directed Twelfth Night, Othello, a Tragedy (with the dramatist Alberto Wainer), and we also did a play called The Matter of the Dreams in the Cervantes’ Theatre…with a mix of anthological scenes by Shakespeare. On Thursday we also will be doing Until the Last Syllable of Time, which also has Wainer as a dramatist and gathers fragments of Richard III, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet and Othello. With the FSA, we are also already planning a further Shakespearean play.
You also did a play by García Lorca. What is it in classics that keeps them alive after so much time?
They have aimed at a very important core. I think that they are authors with a genius that makes them giants beyond their context: they are not talking about their time but about the human passions, which will never die, as we will repeat these behaviours again and again. Love, jealousy, power are issues that will never die, and these authors approach them in very different ways: Lorca is an author that reaches the heart of the play right away–he is very economic in his writing–while Shakespeare has an immense work that covers many characters and goes from high to low: we suddenly reach a highly spiritual scene and then the same characters start taking with an impressive vulgarity. That’s managed with so much worldly wisdom and so much humanity that we can understand how the same mind can easily fluctuate between one scene and the other. The rupture with space that he did was also incredible: we have a scene that happens in a certain country and the following scene in the other, and he turns almost into a movie screenwriter. He’s a visionary. I think that Shakespeare hasn’t been surpassed.
Another author that you directed was Tennessee Williams What is the difference for a theatre director between a classic play and a modern classic?
Generally speaking, I think that classics have an unbeatable dramatic structure that makes the approach to the content for the director more secure and easy. The new, contemporary plays are maybe more flimsy in their structure and they have to be supported by the work of the actors, the proposals or the changes they make, and maybe lack the solid structure that Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams or Miller do.
Do actors of Shakespeare have to hand themselves to the character, or is there a more intense work from the actor to create a version of them?
Well, on the one hand it is very easy for an actor to perform Shakespeare, and on the other hand it is very hard, because it is so well written that it becomes easier than other texts, but it is also open to interpretation and lets the actor look for all the complexities of human being, out of any stereotype–Shakespeare’s characters go through all the tones and colours. They are neither good nor bad, they have complex reasoning and thinking, and that is also accurately reached by Lorca. Actors tend to love this because it is also a way to dive in these highly interesting waters of acting, and it is a reflex of what happens in life: there are also neither good nor bad characters in real life, but people who are going through a lot of different circumstances, and that’s wonderful for any actor. Then you suddenly find a weaker dramatist, and the characters have less human and shallower lines, they are more stereotypical–not all, of course, there are excellent contemporary dramatists, but I think that we owe everything to Shakespeare (and also to the Greeks).
This is not the only play that happens in a forest. Do you think that there is something in the setting that is important to the play?
Yes, in this play it is–the forest in an important metaphor. Shakespeare talks in the first act about power, the alienation of the court, the alienation of power, and perhaps even of a big city. The contact with a freer life, closer to the nature, helps the characters to find their true selves. Even in this play, there are many characters that are redeemed and they find their true identity. The forest seems to channel their true nature, and when they are able to find it and return to the city, the court, or whatever, they return with a lesson and a personal knowledge that is sometimes lack[ing] in a competitive society that has a great ambition for power. Society often ties many kindnesses up, and the Forest of Arden proposes itself as some kind of Arcadia in the golden era, in which the characters don’t have those struggles with which we live in the city. As a matter of fact, the dukes states (and I repeat): “Are not these woods/More free from peril than the envious court.”
Then, he also adds “And churlish chiding of the winter’s wind,/Which, when it bites and blows upon my body,/Even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say/’This is no flattery: these are counsellors/That feelingly persuade me what I am.” A compliment is here not given by mere hypocrisy. There is no hypocrisy at all but a kindness that, despite being tough, is true, and that’s what I think that the characters begin to find in the forest: the truth. It is not in vain that the character of Celia decides to call herself Aliena, which shows her clear alienation, and Rosalind calls herself Ganymedes, the homosexual archetype of love. There is also a lot of different axis in the names that is quite interesting. Shakespeare never leaves anything loose in their meanings.
The interview was originally conducted in Spanish. Click here to read the original version.
Photos courtesy of the FSA.