Thursday, 27 October 2011

All in the detail...

Over the last few days, the discussions I’ve had about drama seem to have revolved around precise, or 'authentic', detail’. With my Making Plays class, for example, we were looking at Conor McPherson’s ‘Port Authority’. For me (not everyone agreed!) it’s a very moving, and funny, meditation on missed chances (mainly romantic), and there are moments when an incredibly specific image seems to sum up everything important about a character. At one point, for example, Dermot - a hapless alcoholic who’s been given the job of his life thanks to a case of mistaken identity - wakes up to find a strange woman in his bed. Bleary-eyed, he rings his wife and overhears his kids playing in the background. As his gaze wanders back to the girl lying naked on his bed, he wonders, ‘if this funny feeling of the carpet under my feet was a feeling of remorse’. The thought is so precise it’s almost obscure. And yet, in the context of the play, it feels completely real: fully-imagined, by the writer.

McPherson’s most famous play ‘The Weir’ is full of such moments: the table-tennis table that Valerie’s daughter is placed on; the sandwich that the barman makes for Jack after the wedding of his former girlfriend… But ‘Port Authority’ is also notable for the way it's set out on the page. Each unit of thought stands separate, almost like lines of verse. Initially it makes for a slightly jarring reading experience, but it also draws attention to the deliberate choice that each line represents. It almost gives the impression of dialogue chiselled precisely from a single block of text.

This importance of respecting and investing in every single line struck me particularly forcefully as I’m currently co-translating a play from Italian into English. This process is throwing up many fascinating challenges (how to preserve the Italian-ness of the original, how to recreate images, as well as rhythms and cadence…) but what is becoming increasingly apparent is the absolute necessity of engaging with the text on a sentence-by-sentence basis. I think that’s a process that becomes more and more natural for writers as they develop. But it’s also scarily easy to let you eye race over passages that you think are unproblematic. In fact I’ve come to realise that, when I find myself skim-reading my own work, it’s usually a sign that something’s wrong, but I’m just not prepared to deal with it yet…

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