Aeschylus' Persians when the Ink is Still Wet

An interview with Paul Koek and Herman Altena Theatre Company Hollandia

By Emilie M. van Opstall
Felix Meritis Foundation
E-mail: c/o hermanaltena@alf.let.uva.nl

One of the first rehearsals of Persians: the actors rattle their lines off monotonously, their scores in their lap. Paul Koek, composer and one of the directors, looks on smiling. He never imagined the script could sound like this. 2466 years after the first performance in Athens, Theatre Company Hollandia plays Aeschylus' penetrating tragedy Persians - a remarkable production, since the ink of the translation and the music is still wet.

During a conversation with composer and director Paul Koek and translator Herman Altena it becomes clear that besides fidelity towards the original text, freedom is an important factor in the creation of this new Persians.

As a translator, did you have a special reason to choose Persians?

[Herman Altena] After the performance of Aeschylus' Prometheus by Theatre Company Hollandia, I was asked which play could be of interest next. The first idea that occurred to me was: if you want to continue with the musicality of Prometheus, you have to choose Persians: that is the oldest play extant. Furthermore, we are absolutely sure it is written by Aeschylus. Once you have chosen Persians, you should investigate the oldest kind of musicality extant. In Persians, there are certain archetypal musical patterns which are really beautiful. I have represented this musicality by making a translation in metrical Dutch.

What did you want to put forward in your translation?

[Herman Altena] My translation and the original text are closely related - not only musically, but also with regard to the enormous density of the images in the text. My work is based on the idea that the rhythmical aspects of the original Greek text, as well as the imagery, can be expressed in Dutch without harming the metaphors used by Aeschylus. A quite technical starting point.

I think you have made a beautiful translation, but a very poetic one. Don't you think it will be hard for an audience to understand?

[Herman Altena] My opinion is you shouldn't explain too much in a translation. I think in that way you destroy the play. [He adds with emphasis:] When you use the right means, the audience chooses what it needs. But as an audience you do have to be willing to invest...

... and what about the names of certain persons and the geographical references with which the audience isn't familiar?

[Paul Koek] You try to produce a play as clearly as possible. As an artist, you believe in your own ideas and you hope that you will be able to convey them to the audience; although a word like for instance 'Salamis' will probably not be understood - you hope the play as a whole is so penetrative that the audience, when it leaves the theatre at the end of the performance, thinks just once: 'How incredibly strange we react to war nowadays.'

So it is not a matter of catching the meaning of each word separately, but it is a matter of getting an impression. This impression should be sufficient to understand the play as a whole.

[Paul Koek] The density of the play ensures that the heart of it is intelligible. I think it is impossible to explain every word separately. [Herman Altena nods in agreement. Paul Koek continues] I conceive these words as sound, form, time, length. I can't imagine that, at the time of the first performance of Persians in 472 BC, everybody had a clear picture of the geographic situation. There must have been certain persons who just experienced the play. Probably, the audience nowadays has more difficulty keeping track of the text, but I don't think the crux of the play is lost because of this.

What do you mean by 'the crux of the play'?

[Paul Koek] I am personally not really directed towards the present time. For me, the play has an eternal value: the past situation described in Persians still exists. It repeats itself again and again, generation after generation. Therefore, for me, it is all right to keep the name Persians, instead of changing it into something more 'up-to-date'.

But Johan Simons, the other director, is much more directed towards society as we know it now. He says Persians deals with the present-day situation. He thinks for example that the notion of decadence has a link with Persians and at the same time with a certain way of looking at today's world, especially through the mass media. As far as the politicians are concerned, for example, considering the madness of Yugoslavia: where are their emotions? You could call that decadent, the way a report on Yugoslavia, or on Rwanda, is being transmitted into the world via the television or the radio. Whereas at the time of Persians, decadence was present as well, albeit probably in a completely different way...

As a translator, do you still have considerable influence on the performance of the play by Hollandia?

[Herman Altena] I more or less let it go. After a long conversations with Paul, about music, about musical theatre.

Do you consider this performance of Persians musical theatre?

[Paul Koek, positively] Yes, absolutely.

What do you exactly mean when you talk about musical theatre?

[Paul Koek] I have written a score, only for the text of the chorus. These parts will be sung-spoken, so to speak. [He hesitates for a moment] But maybe this will change. I can barely imagine we will not end up with a score for the other parts which at the moment are still bare text. I won't talk about that right now, but I think it will happen. The actors have to be free first to grasp the character they will play in their own way. Notes can be a hindrance during this process.

Sometimes, when an important character emerges, or at important passages I have still left out the notes, because I want to have the possibility of creating them during the rehear- sals. This will function as a bridge between the material that is already written and the material that will be found during the rehearsals.

What is the exact structure of the score? Do you stick to the original metric patterns, or do you use the content of the play as a guideline?

[Paul Koek] Both! Herman has investigated thoroughly the rhythms of the original text. He has allowed himself certain liberties to construct understandable Dutch. He handed over to me a trans- lation full of annotations, like a sort of score. I didn't allow myself to be influenced by this - and at the same time, I didn't change anything.

... and how is the score related to the content of the play? Are those two to linked as well?

[Paul Koek] Yes, the transitions in the metrical patterns are strongly linked to the transitions in the emotions. There are enormous differences in tempo, in pitch. This can provide a lot of effect. The first part of the tragedy I always imagined as intolerably slow, a slowness which is another sort of time, 'theatrical time'. This 'theatrical time' is a very dangerous time. A minute can last one and a half minutes, or vice versa. That is indeed a well known musical datum.

So in the theatre a minute is faster than the normal minute outside the theatre - or slower?

[Paul Koek] Yes, you can lead the audience by making them experience a kind of time they no longer recognise, which throws them off their balance.

Herman Altena writes in the introduction to his translation: in Greek theatre emotions are roughly linked with music. Do you agree with him?

[Paul Koek] The emotions are partly fixed, I agree. As far as we know, Aeschylus did the same as we are doing now: he intensified emotions by using different musical tensions. That is exactly the reason why I left open certain passages in the score, at least for now. I think, however, that in the end for these particular passages I will compose rhythmic patterns and pauses which denote intensified emotions or a large amount of objectivity.

What do you mean by 'a large amount of objectivity'?

[Paul Koek] Right now, I intend it as a possible approach for an actor to his role. [He looks out of the window, at the rain] As an actor, you can enact emotions in two ways: by acting emotionally or by showing the objective text. In the last case you treat the emotions differently.

Do you remain faithful to Aeschylus or do you give a musical impression of the content of the text?

[Paul Koek, frowning]: That is hard to answer. We are for example endlessly discussing the relation between 'short' and 'long'. What does it actually mean: 'short' and 'long'? Within the metrical system we constantly have to deal with the relation between 'short' and 'long'. The language spoken at the time can be used as a vantage point, because this language still exists, although it is only in a written form. But how fast did they speak it on stage?

[Herman Altena] There are some ancient theories from long after Aeschylus' time.

And these climaxes, are they parallel to the content of the play?

[Paul Koek] Yes, in fact the play generates them, the play itself directed me towards the score I have written. To me, the real climax is the entrance of Xerxes. I think half an hour after the play is finished, the audience will experience the blow - because of the density of the play: 'But this is incredible: they have been talking about this man for two hours, and thirty minutes before the end of the play, he appears!'

And that is it ...

[Paul Koek] Yes, that is it, but this is also the guy who invades Haiti by order of Clinton. These are the kind of things John Simons has added. From a musical point of view the entrance of Xerxes is a climax. In the score, the role of Xerxes has been fully elaborated.

Do you consult with Johan Simons about these kind of things?

[Paul Koek] No, actually, we have never had a general discussion on abstract or musical apects. We don't consult with each other about these kind of things. We take the view that it is possible for each of us to intervene at any time. There is division between the score on the one hand and the themes of materialism and decadence on the other.

It is not a mess, but in my opinion one must keep thinking this should be possible. Otherwise, I could just as well have taken singers to have a performance next week in, for example, the IJsbreker (Centre for modern music in Amsterdam). No, we have to keep moving, I think even during the performances.

Emilie M. van Opstall
E-mail: c/o hermanaltena@alf.let.uva.nl

(Emilie M. van Opstall studied Ancient Greek and Latin at the University of Amsterdam. She is presently working at the Felix Meritis Foundation - European Centre for Arts and Science - in Amsterdam.)