Ripples of excitement stir through the front-of-house bar at the Arcola Theatre, London, as actors and technicians relax for their well-deserved lunch break. Fresh from a morning's rehearsal, the creative team behind the latest production, Jenufa, share their passion and their dream with me over glasses of sparkling water. I am in the presence of the playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker, her collaborator and friend the director Irina Brown, and their movement director Christopher Sivertsen. This is the core of the newly-formed Natural Perspective Theatre Company, a London-based group whose remit is decidedly international.
Natural Perspective are staging an adaptation of an infamous play written by the late-nineteenth-century Czech playwright, Gabriela Preissová . Originally entitled Její pastorkyna (aren't you impressed by my accent), the story became more famous through Leos Janácek's 1904 operatic treatment of the story, Jenufa. Wertenbaker and Brown have chosen to return to the original dramatic prose work whilst likewise calling their adaptation Jenufa -- the name of the young tragic heroine of the piece. They have also elected to resituate the drama, away from the social and political specificity of an 1890s Czech village in Moravia and to a community just as insular, just as small, but whose universality allows it to speak directly to the play's twenty-first-century audience.
Wertenbaker is adamant that Jenufa is an 'adaptation' of Preissová's play. "It is definitely not a version." "'Version' doesn't mean anything," explains Wertenbaker: "It sounds subjective and apologetic -- by adapting a play you are bringing it into the modern perspective." As a world-renowned and much-acclaimed playwright, Wertenbaker has explored her own creative talents to the full, writing original drama and adapting the foreign work of dramatists as diverse as Anouilh and Maeterlinck via the classic Greek tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides. This experience is now applied to Preissová's enigmatic narrative.
Jenufa was to prove a particular challenge for Wertenbaker. Although, for many of her other adaptations, Wertenbaker could draw on her broad linguistic skill to translate and adapt as she went along, unsurprisingly this did not extend to speaking or reading Czech, and most "certainly not as [the original play] was written in an obscure Moravian dialect!": "It was a nightmare at the beginning -- I thought I could do a version of the story, but then I got completely stuck. Any attempts to learn Czech would have been a disaster -- completely useless. I had the play in literal translation …"
Wertenbaker is enthusiastically interrupted by her directing colleague, Irina Brown, who proclaims, "Then I came in." Brown, whose own professional experience at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, and as Staff Director at the National Theatre gives her a formidable artistic pedigree, explains how she "said [to Timberlake] 'write what you want to write' ": "You see, one can only write the play one sees." With an erudite humility underscored by years of experience, Wertenbaker nods in agreement. Developing her friend's comment, Wertenbaker explains that "suddenly I could see the play -- not as a translation or a version -- but as my adaptation. This brought a freedom."
The result, a work whose story is "universal" in its voice and appeal, a voice which 'speaks' to us now as loudly and as clearly as fine radical contemporary drama should. Whether we hail from London or Paris or New York, we all recognize the stifling, voyeuristic mentality of a small community in which everyone knows, or thinks they know, everyone else's business. Jenufa explores the "pressures that such a community puts on the individual," explains Wertenbaker, adding that these pressures apply "particularly to women, but also to men -- pressure to keep up your reputation, your honour, your good name." Wertenbaker adds passionately, "all society's have the same pressures -- all small communities have their own rules -- it's what drives an individual who breaks these rules that is so fascinating -- the community and the contradictions within it."
Wertenbaker and Brown have been collaborating on this particular piece since 2005. Now they have brought together thirteen fine actors to make their artistic dream a reality. That Natural Perspective can attract the very best is demonstrated by the involvement of Paola Dionisotti, who plays Kostelnicka, the foster-mother to the young Jenufa. Kostelnicka is, according to Wertenbaker, a "heroic character in the Greek sense." There is a sense that Jenufa strives to bridge the divide between classical Greek tragedy and those modern televisual equivalents that present good and bad without understanding the complexity of these moral concepts. Brown goes so far as to describe Jenufa as an "Epic story." It is this impression that we are at the birth of a new form of contemporary 'Epic' tragedy which is so exciting, so viscerally invigorating.
No wonder Natural Perspective have been able to draw together so much talent; as Brown enthuses, Wertenbaker has written an "excellent" play whose "structure is very dynamic, with language that is potent, simple and economical, and which asks the 'Really Big Questions'." Brown adds, "it's a fact, when you have a play of this quality, you can't help but have a committed cast." Add to this the physical-drama skills of Christopher Sivertsen, whose 'function' has been to "explore physically the spirit of being in a 'community' -- both the good ways and bad ways -- and to take the actors through their experiences," and you can guess that this is not going to be a static, cerebral venture. Brown impishly adds that Jenufa is certainly "provocative -- it's pretty existential!"
It is the ability of both writer and director to encapsulate some 'Really Big Questions' into their provocative, 'existential' drama which, for me, seems so fascinating. Almost as one, Brown and Wertenbaker develop their thoughts about 'community' with the imagery of a vast sea. Whilst Brown explains her vision of 'community' as "like a drop in the ocean," Wertenbaker builds on this evocative statement, explaining how "that particular drop and that particular instant [can] reflect the whole ocean." No wonder the pair believe Jenufa has "gone beyond naturalism" to a new and innovative dramatic form. Jenufa might represent in microcosm the universality of 'community', might represent a 'drop' which reflects an entire artistic ocean, but its dramatic ripples promise to stimulate thought and debate for years to come. If intoxicating enthusiasm and commitment are the mark of artistic merit, then allow me to toast Wertenbaker and Brown's future success and the founding of the Natural Perspective Theatre Company.
Kevin Quarmby © 2007