Margherita Peluso is an Italian-born actor and translator who has been working in the Melbourne theatre scene since 2012. In collaboration with director Laurence Strangio, Peluso has recently turned her attention to producing uniquely bi-lingual translations of monologues by well-known Italian dramatists for the Anglophone stage. Through these pieces, Peluso is able to articulate aspects of female experience through politically-charged performances of virtuosic intensity.
By Christian Griffiths
On a brutally cold July afternoon in Melbourne’s CBD, I was lucky enough to meet with Margherita Peluso to chat about her work. Over coffee (and later dumplings) in Flinders Lane, we talked at length about her journey as an actress, about the translation processes she has developed in her work with Strangio, and about the vital connection to her language that the theatre has created for her.
How did you begin working in the Melbourne theatre scene?
It was never my goal to come to Australia to act or to join a theatre company. I had been acting in Italy, but the theatre culture there is very competitive and if you don’t find yourself moving up, you soon begin to doubt yourself. You ask ‘Am I doing the right things?’ ‘Am I going in the right direction?’ ‘Should I even be an actor?’ I wasn’t enjoying it anymore, so I left. I spent some time in London and then in 2011 I came to Australia. I travelled all over the country, but when I finally came to Melbourne I felt a sudden desire to explore what the theatre was like here.
I went to the Museo Italiano in Carlton to ask about any Italian theatre companies I could join. They put me in touch with Mimmo Mangione from the Commeartefo Company, which does productions of Pirandello and Dario Fo, etc. Mimmo calls me the next day to say ‘I have a script for you’! I had only one line (I just had to say ‘Ciao’), but I was very interested just to be involved. It showed me that the theatre culture here is very different: people want to give you opportunities – they trust you. So I kept going, I did rehearsals, and soon the main actor quit the company, and they asked me to take her spot. My first lead role was in Caps and Bells by Pirandello, which we did at La Mama. That was a big opportunity and it told me I had something; that I should keep going; that I do have talent!
How much of that play was in English?
No English in this one; all in Italian. My English is always improving, but at the time it wasn’t so good.
Was the play intended for Italian-speaking audiences?
Well, we put it on was in Carlton, where there is a large Italian-speaking population, but I really think it worked for both English and Italian audiences because it was a very theatrical piece. In Australian theatre, actors always speak very quietly, like they are on the movie screen. For us theatre is about the imagination, we create a space where things go big; the big gestures, the big voice, big body language. People come to the theatre because they want to see these things; the audience enjoy the moments and the emotions, even if they don’t understand everything.
When did you start experimenting with translations?
Early in 2014. Laurence [Strangio, director] and I were working on La Medea by Dario Fo and Franca Rame. We were using an English translation, but I found that it was just wrong for an actor on the stage. It was too academic. Theatre language has to have a sense of the flow of the words. If in the Italian there is a line,
- Che le altre sorelle le mando, tre in filanda e tre a bat
You can’t just turn that into,
- The other sisters I’ve sent three to work in the spinning mill and three to work walking the street.
When you try to read this on the stage, something in your body can’t take it. The writing is dead! And there were just too many lines in the translation that weren’t working properly. So, I went to the original and began ‘correcting’ the translation, based on what I think best matched my feeling for the piece. This is what I came up with:
- The other sisters, I’ve sent three to the sweatshop and three to the brot
Had you performed material by Fo and Rame before this?
Yes, but not in English.
Why did you decide to include ‘The Rape’ in your adaptation of La Medea?
One day I was asking Laurence if we could just play around with some different monologues, from Shakespeare, whatever, and I told him about ‘The Rape’. He found an English translation, and he loved it, so we worked on it for a while. Then for La Mama, we were pursuing the idea of doing ‘La Medea’, for International Women’s Day. It’s hard to say where the idea to put them together came from: ‘La Medea’? Yes! Let’s do it with ‘The Rape’. Wonderful! Perfect!
‘The Rape’ is not a well-known piece, or at least it isn’t performed often, because it’s very confronting. It’s a monologue based on Franca Rame’s own experience, when she was abducted by a gang of Fascists, who raped and tortured her. Rame and Fo had for a long time been writing a lot of anti-Fascist pieces for the theatre, so it was partially political, they were trying to intimidate her. Humiliate her. For years she didn’t tell anybody about it, not even Fo, who was her husband; and the police in Italy are totally useless for this kind of thing. So when she wrote ‘The Rape’, she claimed that she had based it on someone else’s experience, and it wasn’t until much later that she admitted that it happened to her. I think this is important for me because when Franca Rame plays this piece, she isn’t acting; it is her speaking to the audience from experience. That presents a big challenge for me as a performer.
Was this difficult to present in English?
Franca Rame has such a beautiful touch with language. She writes amazing verse and her rhymes are so fluid. She speaks very light, and I think maybe it’s like how Shakespeare is for the English. When we were looking at the translation and trying to improve it, we tried to make it like Shakespeare. You know, the way you speak in English: the da-da, da-da, da-da…?
Is that what it’s called? We tried to create that, me and Laurence. I’ll give you an example: one line from the English translation of ‘La Medea’ was,
- ‘What law do you speak of, women?’
This is a very heavy line the way it is written and it has to be spoken slowly. The translator must have thought that the play is so very serious, so the lines must be slow and tragic. They don’t realise that when Franca Rame speaks the line on stage, her voice has a lighter rhythm to it. We wanted to get that, so we changed the line to,
- ‘What is this law that you speak of, women?’
For me, this is much closer to the rhythm of the Italian, but it is also a more effective style of theatre speech. It flows much better.
Also, I think the translation should be connected to the character. I ask myself, is this the way the character would speak? The first version of the line is harsh, it sounds like an accusation, like she is saying ‘how could you believe in such a law?’ The way I have changed it is more reflective, trying to understand. This is closer to how I feel about the character I am playing.
When did you start working on your own translations?
Well, after working on La Medea, I began to think about translating works by big Italian writers that maybe haven’t been put into English before. In the theatre, we always seem to be doing the same writers, the classics: Shakespeare, Pinter, etc. We should be exploring different languages, different scripts, different words. This is why I had the idea of translating some pieces by Stefano Benni. He has such a great sense of irony and sarcasm, but it does not always translate into other languages because the Italians have a sense of humour for all situations, even in sadness, which people can sometimes find offensive. Also, Benni is a writer who has a rhythm that will continue through the whole piece and, if in a single paragraph, you change that rhythm, it affects the whole piece.
How did you and Laurence [Strangio, director] go about translating Benni’s Le Beatrici?
By fighting! We fight, because Laurence doesn’t speak Italian so it’s hard to make him understand what the problem is with the line. He will say to me, ‘this line works, because these are the exact words that describe the same thing’. I will give you an example. Two lines in Italian,
- ‘Cosa fai?’
- ‘Mi pettino’
In English it becomes,
- ‘What do you do?’
- ‘I brush my hair’
It says the same thing, yes, but it changes everything! I have to say to him ‘Can you just find me one word to describe what I am doing instead of two different words?’ So we make compromises, where we don’t always follow the script word-by-word. To keep the same rhythm, it’s always possible to write a different sentence with a similar meaning.
We experiment with what we call ‘translation on the floor’. For example, ‘La Presidentessa’ [a sketch from Le Beatrici] is a scene that is normally for one person, but Rosa [Campagnaro] and I performed it as a duo. When we rehearsed it on stage we didn’t have the script, and we had no system to say ‘this is your line’ or ‘this is my line’. Laurence was offstage feeding the lines in English to us, and we would repeat them. Rosa is a native English speaker, so she would always get it right, but most of the times, because I was misunderstanding the words, I would come out with something different: it would turn the line into a joke. Like the word ‘stammer’ would come out of my mouth as ‘stab her’ – ‘stammer’, ‘stab her’. So we create the joke around my mistake in understanding the different words and it becomes part of the performance.
- ‘Stab her?’
- ‘No! No! “Stammer”!’
We were always looking for ways of making humour in the space between the English and Italian. This process also helps us to develop our characters. Two of us were playing one role together, but as we work on it, we go in different directions. My way of doing the role was much more aggressive, while Rosa plays more seductively. So this translation process is more than just about changing words from one language to another, it’s a central part of how the performance takes shape.
Do these processes take you a long way from the original script?
Honestly, no. It wasn’t that different. Maybe, because it‘s two people, a lot of the lines were repeated, and my line might come out different, or I say the same line in a different way, or in Italian, but the script is still there.
Your translations often keep a lot of Italian mixed with the English. Is that because there are times that you cannot translate something in a satisfying way?
Not really. In ‘La Presidentessa’ we translated the whole script into English; we only used Italian when we were improvising. In other pieces, we leave certain words or sentences in Italian, but there is always logic behind the choice. A lot of the time, people think this might be when a character becomes emotional, or if they are swearing. But it can be more than that; in La Medea, for example, when Medea is talking to the audience, she says ‘Amiche mè, Sorelle’ (‘My friends, sisters’). This gives the audience an opportunity to feel the sound of the word in Italian and to become involved in the language. It works to create empathy and intimacy for the character. Sometimes it’s also just that the Italian sounds better: ‘Senza amore. Senza voci. Senza risa.’ The feel of the language can be just as important as the meaning.
Or another example is ‘Suor Filomena’ [From Le Beatrici]. In this monologue, a young nun is obsessed with sex and is convinced that she is possessed by the devil. When she speaks in English, her voice is very sweet and calm. When the spirit takes her, she starts speaking in Italian, and her speech becomes more violent. Make of it what you will, but it is the devil in her that speaks Italian.
Right now, you are preparing to present La Medea again at La Mama before taking it overseas. What has it been like to revisit the play after several months?
It’s always a work in progress. The Medea we presented back in March was very different. She was the powerful woman, ruthless and decisive: ‘You eager victims! I know who you are!’ But that Medea belongs to a different world. When the audience sees her, they feel they are a distance from her. But what I have discovered is that La Medea is not about the mythological character, it’s about the modern women. Yes, it is Medea from the Greek play, but that is just there as the story. The one who is really talking is the woman who has to kill her children to liberate herself. How many women out there have done that? In Italy, there’s plenty! It’s sad, but in Italy, every day a woman must kill her child for the sake of her freedom, and the society and the church call her ‘murderer’. Fo and Rame wrote to show that that the story of Medea is not just some mythology, it’s relevant for today.
So the lines in the play come to have new meaning for me. There are three voices in the piece, Medea, the chorus and the friend who tries to talk Medea out of doing the crazy thing, and I play all three. The friend says to her, ‘it’s normal that the man goes to find a better woman, the younger, with the sweet voice or the firm breasts: it’s the way of the world – it’s nature’. But Medea says: ‘They hang children around our necks; to keep us tame and submissive; the better for them to milk us.’ When I first played the role, I was acting, but now I understand it better. I am this woman, too. When I perform it, I don’t want the audience to see ‘Medea’, I want them to see me, a woman.
What would you like to do next?
Well, our next goal is to take La Medea to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for 2015. The show at La Mama is to raise money, and we are putting together a Pozible campaign, which we hope will help get us there. I we succeed, we would like to take it to other places in Britain and to America.
What else? When we put on Le Beatrici, we translated all eight of the pieces that make up the work, even though we only performed three of them for the show. We are arranging to have our translation published, which will be the first time this piece has appeared in English. That is very exciting for me.
Translating has given me a lot of inspiration, and I always have a lot of ideas for what I would like to work on next. There is a poet named Alda Merini who I love, she is not well known here, and I would very much like to work on translating her poetry for the stage. I think this will be the next project for me. I think it’s a big step for me to start working on my own ideas, to start writing my own pieces for the stage. I think I have found my true voice in the space between the Italian and English languages, and I think this would work just as well for my own writing. It’s been a big journey for me to get this far, and I want to take it all the way if I can.