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Lyric life

Young Lyric Associate Amy Rushent meets Britannicus Translator & Adaptor Timberlake Wertenbaker

Young Lyric Associate Amy Rushent spoke to Britannicus Translator & Adaptor Timberlake Wertenbaker about her love of Racine’s writing, the process of translating and the importance of keeping classic texts alive.

What draws you to adapting and translating to classical text?

By definition, a classical text has stood the test of time. It also has different impacts at different times, and as such, it’s very rewarding to translate because you’re merging the past with the present, events and language of the past with contemporary perceptions.

What was the first piece you translated and adapted? And how has your process changed from then to now?

I translated two Marivaux plays (for the Lyric Studio, as it happens) for Mike Alfreds’ company. He taught me how important it was to be precise when translating. Good playwrights (and most classical authors are) understand theatrical language. If you generalise to make it sound better and go from an active verb to a passive verb, for example, you can wreck the intention the actor needs. My process has just been to refine that, although I sometimes do very free adaptations where I break all the rules.

What was your favourite part of adapting Britannicus?

Britannicus is an extraordinary play. I loved spending so much time with the story and with every single line of Racine’s text. Not to mention Rome. I hadn’t known the play that well and it was a wonderful discovery.

Do you have any favourite characters or scenes? If so why?

All the characters are interesting and complex, that’s what makes it a great play. Agrippina is of course an amazing character, especially as a woman in that environment. Her need for power has rarely been so brazenly portrayed in a female part. It’s hard not to admire her extraordinary abilities and feel sorry for the fragility of her position. But there are all those around her as well, with their complexities and drives.

Of course the great scene between Nero and Agrippina is special. The scenes between Britannicus and Junia are very touching. But I don’t really have favourite characters as such, some are nicer than others, but that’s not the point.

What is the most joyful part of adapting and translating classical texts for you?

I love translating because you get to spend so much time with another writer. It really is like a marriage. Sometimes, it can be a disappointing encounter but that’s very rare. And with Britannicus I simply felt greater and greater awe for Racine, although his darkness was sometimes hard to take. Classical writers can teach us so much, about people, about the world and about writing for the theatre.

What is most challenging part in the process of adapting and translating a classical text?

It’s a huge responsibility: you need to stay true to the text but not be paralysed. You need to make sure you understand it but at the same time try to bring into the present so that it can live and breathe.

Why is it important that we keep classical texts alive in these modern times?

Classical texts come from our common history, they are part of the fabric of our society, however remote that may seem. They also show us what never changes. I think that’s incredibly important. And because the events took place some time ago, they can illustrate some behaviour and actions with great clarity. The present is often blurred for us and it’s good to see our world through a long lens.

How do we encourage those who feel alienated by classical text to feel engaged with it? Is this something you think about when translating and adapting?

I worry about people thinking something is “not for them.” Any play is for anyone. That’s what theatre is for. To bring you in front of something that may not be familiar to you but that might speak to you. There are foods we like and are eat all the time, but it’s good to try something different and then it may, who knows, become a favourite food.

What is it about the characters that live in these plays that enables them to continue to live on in translations and adaptations that people want to see?

The themes of power, love, fragility and abuse are as important now as they ever were. The characters live on because of their depth. They stand outside of time, they can be reinterpreted, let’s say you never tire of studying them, of watching them.

Why is it important to keep classical text as a part of the theatre landscape, when other modern styles of prose dominate the world of new writing?

Classical texts are like old trees. Planted hundreds of years ago, still tall and beautiful, they stand for what lasts in our intellectual landscape. Sometimes we need to prune them, we’re free to decorate them, climb them, play under them, but why ignore them or cut them down?

What top tip you have for those interested in working with classical text?

Make sure you understand the language of the piece and then have fun. There isn’t one way interpret classical texts. You should respect them, yes, but not be in awe. They’re your friends, and they are there for you, now, at this moment. I would avoid any text you don’t really like or that you don’t feel linked to in some emotional way.

You can’t replicate what an audience felt when they first saw the play. The link will be between you, the piece you’re working on and the audience of today. In other words, you’re a translator, an interpreter. Mind you I think all modern plays are also translations, but that’s another subject.


Britannicus plays in our Main House from 26 May – 25 Jun 2022. Click here to find out more and book.

Image: Marc Brenner