Foreign plays attempting to build a life in the UK have long had to prove their good intentions by undergoing painstaking adaptations. Plays from English speaking countries get a free pass; everyone else, whether an emerging new name, or a big gun the size of Chekhov, is usually assigned an established local playwright to turn a simple, cohesion-threatening translation into an assimilated, integrated adaptation. ‘In a new version by’ guarantees safety.
To a foreign eye this has far-reaching implications. By subjecting everyone from Aeschylus onwards to Britification by default, theatre in the UK is signalling a deep disinterest in all forms of otherness. Without faith in translations and imports, what immigrants face is a comprehensive lack of representations on stage – not national representations, but ones that accept that ‘other’ is not inherently incomprehensible. No wonder they turn to job stealing.
I’m Not Jesus Christ at Theatre N16 is a welcome exception to the rule. Written by Maria Manolescu and translated by Cristina Catalina it appears to have made it to the London production without much if any forced appropriation. The play – and the performance – takes place in a destitute corner of a Romanian city, where the 11 year old Mihai is growing up in an abandoned garage and in complete isolation, under the watchful eye of his mother who is convinced he is Jesus Christ. Romania is not just the backdrop for the play, but also the cultural, political and socio-economic context it draws its narrative from, a fact Melissa Dunne’s production embraces rather than runs away from. This religious fanaticism is happening in a post-communist country; in this universe the infamous Romanian orphanages are not a trope of Eastern Europeanness, but a fact of long-lasting state negligence. The characters of I’m Not Jesus Christ inhabit a world filled with mistrust, poverty and fear. In the hands of the Daily Mail these ingredients would metastasise into a story of fundamentally backwards people; in the hands of Papercut Theatre they are a critique of turbo-capitalism, welfare policies (or lack thereof) and patriarchy, all in a country that ignores problems too big to fix.
I’m Not Jesus Christ is perhaps deeply rooted in Romania but it also presents a strong case for translation against adaptation. The historical and state mechanisms it explores may draw their specificity from one country, but issues of child abuse, institutional cover ups and a general disinterest in the poor are hardly foreign topics to others, the UK included. This is evident despite the fact that the performance lacks a dramaturgical focus, occasionally makes superficial choices, and attempts to cram a very theatrical scenography into a fundamentally non-theatrical space. In the 2007 play Mihai wants to be Michael Schumacher and not Jesus; in 2016, the performance doesn’t begin to address the dramatic change of meaning inherent in this idolisation. The costumes shy away from illustrating poverty, but end up being caricature depictions of sex workers and religious zealots. The performance jumps from child abuse to abuses of nationalism, to endemic gender inequality, to the power of organised religion, refusing to zoom in on one of those grandiose topics. Then there are all the unanswered questions: is everyone’s obsession with television as a be all and end all medium a reflection of a world lagging behind or a world as it was in 2007? How about the fact that Ana, a frequently beaten-up and abused prostitute, is Irish – in a performance that puts heavy emphasis on institutional neglect of women, is that subtext or the luck of casting? There’s a distinct lack of decisiveness in this performance; as a result it’s hard to be sure which elements of the show are a sign of intent and which a semiological coincidence.
I’m Not Jesus Christ also comes with some gems: Sharon Duffy’s Ana is a nuanced miniature, a young woman that’s terrified but hard-hitting, desperate but somehow full of life, eager to help and take advantage of at the same time. First and foremost however, this performance adds to the small but growing collection of shows that investigate the realm of translated contemporary text, proving it’s not just words but humour, politics, and problems that translate. For the foreign eyes in the audience, it’s also a small contribution to the tiny pot of theatre representations devoid of (metaphorical) subtitles.
I’m Not Jesus Christ is on at Theatre N16 until Thurs 26th May. Read more or book tickets here.