Gerda Stevenson on Edwin Morgan’s translation of Racine’s PHAEDRA.
It was one of those phonecalls you don’t forget. I was on the Isle of Skye, staying with a friend, when I got a call from Kenny Ireland, then Artistic Director of the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh. Would I be interested in playing the title role in Edwin Morgan’s translation of Racine’s Phaedra? I’d seen Communicado’s memorable production of Cyrano De Bergerac, eight years previously, and had loved the swagger of Morgan’s modern Scots translation. I was certainly interested!
Just as Phaedra’s love for Hippolytus is immediate and all encompassing, so Morgan’s words spoke to me on an instinctive level – my gut and heart knew the meaning of every single word, even if my head didn’t. Growing up in the Borders I’d heard Scots spoken in street and playground, and at home through the medium of song – my father, the composer Ronald Stevenson, set the poetry of William Soutar, Helen B. Cruikshank, Sydney Goodsir Smith and Hugh MacDiarmid. Morgan’s Scots in version of Phaedra is a gallus, anachronistic, irreverent clanjamfrie. When Oenone asks her mistress if she’s in love, Phaedra replies:
“Aye, radge, radge in love.”
Morgan’s language is a mongrel of the highest pedigree, its rhythms and imagery supple and vivid as those found in the great Border ballads, especially evident in Phaedra’s achingly beautiful speech to Hippolytus, when she tells of Theseus’ arrival in Crete:
“Whit wiz ye up to then? How come he gaithert
Aw thae Greek heroes, an no Hippolytus?
How come ye were sae young ye missed the ship
That landit him alang the banks a Crete?
You wid’ve stoapt the Minotaur in its tracks
Fur aw the raivellins a the Labyrinth.
Ma suster wid’ve gien ye the lang thread
Tae thread an tae re-threid the maze o dreid.”
I remember Morgan describing his approach to translating Racine’s play. Being a linguist, he had direct access to the original French. He’d decided not to adhere to Racine’s structure of twelve syllable Alexandrines and rhyming couplets, using instead a mixture of meters, including iambic pentameter. Contrary to the minimalist original, he deliberately chose to use an extensive vocabulary. The result is fresh and scintillating, throbbing with virtuosic wit, beauty and passion. There’s something revolutionary here too: with fearless bravura, Morgan puts the language of the streets into the mouths of patrician protagonists. As an actor, you know when language jars, but it never does in this remarkable text. I couldn’t wait, each night, to get out on stage, and utter every syllable.
Gerda Stevenson, January 2010.