David Nicholson delights in giving new life to classic French comedies. His translations of Tartuffe (East Side Players) and Cyprienne (The Village Playhouse) were well-received by Toronto audiences. Currently, Nicholson is staging Two Weeks in Normandy (translated from Villégiature by Henry Meilhac) in Week Three (March 23 to 26, 2011) of Alumnae Theatre’s New Ideas Festival. Watch for a second Toronto production of his award-winning translation of Tartuffe in September, 2011.
Theatromania: What inspired you to adapt and translate this work by Henri Meilhac?
DN: I began translating French plays five years ago, with Moliere’s Tartuffe. Audiences loved it and I was hooked. I started looking beyond the well-known classics and discovered the world of 19th century French comedies — at the time, the most popular in the world. I soon ran into Henri Meilhac (1831-1897), a name almost forgotten in the English-speaking theatre world. A select few may recognize him as co-author of the libretto for Bizet’s Carmen. He also wrote the play later adapted into the popular operetta The Merry Widow and was among the most successful authors of Paris comedies — wonderful plays whose sparkling wit is always underlain with emotional truth. I had already translated and adapted one of his full-length plays, Ma Cousine (which I reset in 1921 as Gabrielle). The play which I’ve titled Two Weeks in Normandy started out as Villégiature, an 1894 Monday night special for season subscribers at the Théâtre du Vaudeville, Paris — written as a vehicle for Gabrielle Réjane, as big a star in French comedy as Sarah Bernhardt was in tragedy. The 1890s were the height of the French “Belle Epoque,” but nothing in the text of Villégiature specifically limits it to that period — 21st century couples still take vacations together, men and women still flirt, husbands and wives still have affairs. I deliberately chose language that could fit any time from 1894 to the present. (It was director Anne Harper’s brilliant decision to set the play in the late 1950s.)
Theatromania: Do your feelings about a script change once you see it on stage?
DN: There’s nothing like putting a script into the hands of intelligent, talented actors and a dedicated, creative director. You see which lines work; you see sublayers of meaning you weren’t quite sure your work had (sometimes you were pretty darn sure it didn’t). Comedy’s tricky: it works or it doesn’t. Sometimes you can see this during rehearsals (I even changed some lines after hearing actors read them during auditions); sometimes it takes an audience to let you know what you’ve written. I still try to see every performance of a play of mine.
Theatromania: Tell us about working with Anne Harper. How did she help you realize your vision?
DN: I’ve worked with Anne before, as her producer, set designer and actor. She has also directed an earlier translation/adaptation of mine: Cyprienne at the Village Playhouse. I was pleased that she decided to direct at this year’s New Ideas Festival and delighted that we were able to get together on Two Weeks in Normandy. We cooperate well on developing a play; revising dialogue to match the blocking and mood of the play as the rehearsals progress. Anne “gets” the blend of sophistication and humour which is the hallmark of the style of French theatre I love to translate and adapt. No director I know is better in bringing sex and comedy to the stage in eye-crinkling, deep-breathing colour.
Theatromania: What do you enjoy most about the New Ideas Festival?
DN: It’s a tie between getting to know so many playwrights and directors and having the opportunity for close collaboration with the creative team on my own play.
Theatromania: What’s next for you?
DN: Another trip to Paris in May to watch more French classics . . . followed by a second production of my Tartuffe translation at the Bloor West Village Playhouse in September.