Mouth On Fire-as Ghaeilge!

October 23, 2013


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In a small library in the University of Reading, as part of the Beckett Collection, there lies a folder with the words Mouth on Fire on it. Within it are the reviews and the programme for a show from an Irish company bearing that same name, called Tyranny in Beckett ,which was mounted this past November in the Smock Alley Boys School.

In the two short years since they formed, Mouth on Fire have been included in the Beckett International Foundation’s archives as the first company in the world to stage the prose piece "As the Story Was Told" and the first European company to transpose "Rough For Radio II" from its titled medium to the stage (although they were under strict instruction from the Beckett estate that the venue be as dark as possible). They'll earn a further entry this April with the world premiere of "Come and Go" as Gaeilge continuing their stated desire to strike the balance between being innovative whilst also adhering to the stringency of the writer himself and his estate.

Translated by Gabriel Rosenstock and starring Geraldine Plunkett “Teacht agus Imeacht” opens in the Focus Theatre on the 10th of April, Becket’s birthday, as part of a presentation of some of his shorter works.

The project has been funded by Foras na Gaeilge and Dublin City Council as part of their on going drive to promote the Irish language through the arts. And in 2012 Mouth on Fire hope to stage three of Becketts shorter plays this way. After Teacht agus Imeacht they will perform Rockaby for the Samuel Beckett Working Group in the Nutfielfd Theatre, Southampton before returning home to Ireland to stage both pieces, plus Rough for Theatre 1 , for Borradh Buan, a festival of Irish language and bi-lingual events held in the Axis in Ballyun each Autumn.

“This a great and courageous undertaking” said Ray Yeates, Arts Officer for Dublin City Council at the launch of the project this Tuesday at the Foras na Gaeilge building on Merion Square. “They will be surrounded by the English speaking community who will have claimed Beckett as their own and who will constantly question why they are bothering to work through the language. But what people who work through English need to realise is that very important things happen in the arts that don’t happen in English. They happen in French. They happen in German. And they happen in Irish.”

He believes what Mouth on Fire are doing harks back to the days of The Damer, when great Spanish, Russian and even Shakesperean works were staged in the language. “And lets not forget. Beckett himself did not write in English. He wrote in French as that was the language he was most connected to.”

Gabriel Rosenstalk is key to Mouth on Fire’s ambition to translate all Beckett’s short plays into Gaelic. “We made sure that we had someone of Gabriel’s stature when it came to the translations “ says Cathal Quinn, an actor and respected voice coach who formed Mouth on Fire in July 2010 with the actress Melissa Nolan. “He’s translated all sorts of Nobel Laureates. – Günter Grass, Rabindranath Tagore and Seamus Heaney to name but a few, so we were delighted when he agreed to work with us.”

“Beckett is as strange and as familiar as the next job,” Rosenstalk says. “But there’s a sparseness in his writing that reminds me of the beginning of Irish Literature.

“Look at these four lines from an Early Irish lyric. Scél lem dúib/dordaid dam, /snigid gaim/ró faith sam. Meyer translates that stanza as: My tidings for you:/the stag bells/winter snows/ summer is gone. There is a texture, terseness and tonality here that are Beckettian. In this regard, he sounds more Irish to me than, say, Shaw. “

He believes that inward and outward translation are vital arteries in the corpus of any language. “It is a national disgrace that so little of Irish-language literature, ancient and new, is available in the major languages of the world. Translation brings disparate peoples and cultures together. New ideas and new sensibilities, new themes and new words are introduced to a language via translation.” It’s particularly shameful given that the oldest Irish play was written in Irish, the play known as The Colloquy between Fintan and the Hawk of Achill “Would not Beckett have delighted in these splendid lines uttered by the bird: I am the grey hawk of time. Alone in the middle of Achill!”

Beckett, the writer, is both musician and mathematician; so precise are the rhythms of his text. Did Beckett’s work present any particular challenges that weren’t present in any of the other writings he has translated.

“In some ways, being a translator is like being an actor… an actor taking on the psyche, personality, angst, loves, hopes, and despair of different roles.” But he doesn’t over think the act. “If you stay outside it, the translation will be mechanical. It must take the flame from the original fire to be a flame itself. “

How did a company with so little professional experience earn the trust of the renownedly picky Beckett Estate? After all, Beckett, more than most, loathed his work being transposed from one medium to another, which is just what they did with Rough For Radio II? “We had a letter of recommendation from Patrick Sutton, who had worked with Edward Beckett before. So that helped,” says Quinn,. “We offered to stage it a number of different ways in our initial communication. They asked us to do it in complete darkness. So all we had was a light on an old transistor radio to help create the mood. The audience was left to come up with the images themselves from the words, as Beckett intended.” Only people Beckett really trusted were allowed transpose mediums. And Edward Beckett, executor of his estate, follows his example. “We’ve started to get our toe in the door and started to earn that trust, by setting out our stall, saying exactly how we were going to do something and doing it just so.”

So far they have explored the plays through their thematic links. From “Silence and Darkness” in Beckett, to “Humanity” and “Tyranny”. Their most recent production explores the ephemerality of life and is titled “Before Vanishing.” As well as Come and Go, which will be performed back to back in both languages, English then Irish, they will stage Footfalls, That Time and Ohio Impromptu.

A company with a social conscience, they have performed the shorter plays and prose of Beckett anywhere they can so as to reach the people who might best identify with his work. So far they have performed at the Electric Picnic, on the Beckett bridge, in the Simon Communities homeless shelter on Usher’s Quay, at the inner sanctum of the Occupy Dame Street protestors at Central Bank and on the grounds of two psychiatric hospitals, St Pats and St Edmundsbury, becoming the first group in 40 years to perform in the former.

“ A lot of the patients said I saw myself up there” says Nolan. “Someone is identifying with how I feel. And that for me is Beckett. He lights up the dark. He shines a big torch on the taboo, the thing nobody wants to look at and makes us face, head on, the realities of the human condition. And nowhere does he offer us a hopeful or conclusive message , rather a positive attitude in facing those realities with courage.”

“The feedback we got from the homeless was terrific” says Quinn. “The minute Colm (O Brien) appeared on the box as the protagonist in Catastrophe, wearing just an over coat and shivering, one turned to another and said “the DT’s”. Which is a way we never thought of looking at it.”

They are keen to follow in Jan Jönsson’s footsteps, to perform and workshop Beckett with prisoners. “I’ve written to the prisons 15 times now,” says Quinn, “ and I’m getting a little closer every time. At the moment they don’t feel Beckett is working class enough. “

Overcoming this esoteric notion that Beckett is boring is chief among the concerns for the company. “Beckett becomes alien to the general public if his work is not given light; performed, studied, spoken about, workshopped in all areas of economic class” concludes Nolan. “His work is relative. We all come into the world exactly the same way and we will all die one day. That is what links us all together. “

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