Shakespeare festival “theatrical event of the summer” says translator of new version of Merry Wives of Windsor

Photo: Pavel Mára, AGENTURA SCHOK

One of the biggest cultural events of the season in the Czech Republic, the annual Shakespeare Summer Festival, has just begun at the Supreme Burgrave’s House at Prague Castle. Opening the festival on Thursday night was a new production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, starring the great Czech comic actor Bolek Polívka as Falstaff and directed by the Oscar-winning filmmaker Jiří Menzel.

Jiří Menzel and Bolek Polívka  (right),  photo: CTK
The two are working together for the first time and the collaboration has been fruitful, says Polívka.

“It’s been going wonderfully. We’ve known each other for a very long time. We’ve always been talking about creating something together, and it’s never worked out…But recently we acted together in a Polish film…Working with him is great. It’s as if you asked whether a gigantic oak casts a shadow. Yes, it does.”

Of the ten plays in this year’s Shakespeare Summer Festival three are all-new productions. As every year it is set to move on from Prague to a number of other cities in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, taking place on seven open-air stages in all. The outdoor environment is no doubt one reason the festival is such a big hit with audiences. It also poses particular challenges to actors.

“I’ve performed on different open-air stages at different times...It is of course harder to act outdoors – a motorbike drives past, or there’s a group of Japanese tourists on the other side of the wall, a plane flies by…both the actor and the audience have to expect such things. You can even change the script and make reference to them. Once it started to rain when I was playing Shylock in a scene where he’s complaining desperately about his daughter, so I said, even the sky is crying…But it is harder than playing at a theatre, where it’s as quiet as in a cathedral.”

Simona Stašová,  Bolek Polívka,  Eva Režnarová  (left to right),  photo: CTK
As he says, Bolek Polívka played Shylock in a production of The Merchant of Venice at Prague Castle, two years ago. Generally speaking, what is the actor’s relationship to the work of William Shakespeare?

“Probably like most theatre people, I view him with humility. I studied at the Janáček Academy where we studied classics like Shakespeare and Moliere, but also Beckett. We later set up an avant garde theatre, Husa na provázku, but Shakespeare remains the root, from which so much comes. The language is wonderful, and Hilský’s translation is also wonderful. It’s simply beautiful and you don’t have to act too much for it to go nicely.”

The “Hilský” Polívka was referring to is Professor Martin Hilský, the foremost Czech translator of Shakespeare, and the author of the new version of The Merry Wives of Windsor premiered on Thursday night. What did he find were the particular challenges of translating the comedy into Czech?

“The most important challenge I think was the punning and the wordplay of the play, because it is in fact a firework of linguistic wit, I would say.

Martin Hilský
“A very specific problem was the language of those characters who distort the English language. The Welsh priest Hugo Evans speaks English quite well, but with a slight Welsh accent. He mispronounces particular syllables or letters. And he also distorts the English language from the point of view of its idiomatic quality…Or Dr Caius who is French, speaking very bad English, much worse than Evans.”

How do you get around that problem? Do you have people using more, I don’t know, Moravian Czech? How do you deal with that problem?

“Well, I am against that solution. In the past it happened quite often that translators used some dialect, Moravian or Bohemian dialects, but it does not work. Because then you change the atmosphere of the play completely. You make it too local, and you kind of disturb the texture of the play.

“[Erik Adolf] Saudek, a very well-known translator just after the war, who translated The Merry Wives of Windsor…for the Welsh priest he changed the language into…a German who wants to speak Czech but cannot do it properly. After the war there were political connotations of this, but linguistically speaking it was very good.

“I opted [as a model] for the Englishmen living in the Czech environment, trying to speak Czech. My inspiration for example would by the Czech countrymen living in America –this is a very special language – or some of my acquaintances who speak very good Czech but there is an accent.

Bolek Polívka as Falstaff,  photo: CTK
“I was inspired by this. But my decision was not to distort the words and the pronunciation of the words, but rather to change the structure of the sentences, or invent new idioms that would be not only wrong but entertaining.

“It is some kind of poetry if you make a particular mistake. So that was the solution.”

I’ve heard praise of your translation from Bolek Polívka the actor who’s playing Falstaff and Jiří Menzel who’s directing it. Were you closely involved in the production of the play and did you work closely with Menzel?

“Yes, I did. Jiří Menzel invited me to the first rehearsal and he asked me to give a speech on the play, and especially on the language. So I spoke to the actors.

“We know one another and we have met several times, and it’s a pleasure to work with him. He has a particular sense for language, and linguistic subtleties.”

The Shakespeare Summer Festival has been a big success over the last decade, with most shows selling out extremely fast. What is its appeal? Professor Martin Hilský continues.

The Supreme Burgrave’s House at Prague Castle,  photo: CTK
“It is the place first of all. It’s a magic place. Prague Castle is a special place because it has a memory. That courtyard in which the performances take place is very nice, there’s a high wall…nearby is the cathedral [St Vitus’ Cathedral], so from time to time you hear the bells, and they become part of the performance. Of course the light is magic when it gets dark, it’s absolutely magic.

“The problem is that the acoustics are slightly worse than in an ordinary closed theatre, because there are many disturbances.

“Also it’s a different kind of playing, or acting, because I think you have no possibility to do the fine things. You have to do things in larger contours, so to speak.

“Then of course I think the popularity of the festival is due to the excellent work of the organisers, who have very good PR and a good advertising policy.

“It has really developed into an event. It is the theatrical event of the summer in Prague.”