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1 November 2017 •

Suzy Storck rehearsals: Week 4

There are lines that break my heart. When Suzy says,

'I promised my Mum not to show her up
I want my husband Hans Vassily to be proud of me
'

that's heartbreaking. Because of the implication that, whatever Suzy does, she's going to show her Mum up. Whatever she does, her husband is never going to be proud of her. That's brutal. She's trying so hard.

It's funny, in the final week of rehearsals, how a piece jumps in and out of focus. Scenes that were exciting suddenly fall flat; others leap into gear. So you go back to those lines. The ones that always do something to you. The ones that always break your heart or make you smile or knock the breath out of you. You remember what they do to you. You remember the effect of the sound they make, and it all comes back... ('Like a body from the earth / Like a story you dig up', as Suzy herself says of her own story).

'They might not want to look at you, during the performance,' says Jean-Pierre. 'Not because they're bored. Because it's difficult to watch. They might want to look down, they might want to look inside themselves. That's OK. It's a play that makes us uncomfortable. We all feel the emotion in a similar way. But what it's doing politically is not comfortable, and not everyone will feel its politics in the same way.'

Since the beginning of the project, before rehearsals started, even, we have been having conversations about class. We have spoken about class with Ellen, the artistic director of the Gate, who invited Jean-Pierre to direct a show here, with Chris Campbell, who translated the play, and with the cast. Questions about class, or 'social determinism' as Jean-Pierre says, are central to Suzy Storck. 'My father was a factory worker from Senegal, and my mother was a middle-class, Jewish lawyer,' Jean-Pierre tells us in one rehearsal. 'In all the shows I've made, the question of class has come up.' What's particular about this production, though, is how the question translates from a French context to a British one.

At the beginning of Suzy Storck, the Chorus tells us that the story happens 'here, right here', before adding that 'the exact geography of where it happens doesn't matter'. It's a paradox. For me, it speaks about our role as an audience: it tells us that whoever is in the room, watching, listening, is implicated. It doesn't matter whether we're watching the piece in France or in England, in the city or in the country, in an affluent area or a poor one, we bear a responsibility for what happens. We cannot use the excuse of the characters being from a different place or different class background to create a safe distance for ourselves. We are implicated in this tragedy.

But geography does matter. It's partly why the play is so difficult to translate. At one point, the Chorus suggests that we (the audience) probably think this is happening in the sort of place you find only idiots and 'bouseux'. 'Bouseux' is a French slur which conflates rural life with stupidity and the excrement of farmyard animals – it tells us, 'these are people who are as thick as the shit they shovel for a living'. The problem for the translator is that this isn't a group that we tend to identify in England. For a long time France retained a rural population in a way that England didn't, because of reasons related to the scale and pace of their respective industrializations. Perhaps this is why, in England, we don't tend to direct our contempt at rural populations in the same way. Instead, it is the 'townies', 'chavs' and, more recently, 'bigots' living in small towns who are despised by the city-dwelling, theatre-going middle classes. These 'liberal, metropolitan elites' typically associate small-mindedness and stupidity with small towns and dog shit rather than the countryside and cow pats. Of course, what the Chorus is doing is confronting the audience with these (their?) prejudices: how working class people from rural backgrounds are perceived, but, simultaneously, also preconceptions about the 'type of person' who goes to the theatre, or lives in the city.

But to come back to the term 'bouseux': if it is impossible to translate, how can the piece speak to us about class experiences in a different country? For me, the way we can overcome the issue of 'geography' is by coming back to those lines which always resonate, wherever we are:

'I promised my Mum not to show her up
I want my husband Hans Vassily to be proud of me
'

because there is something universal in these lines – we all understand the pain of being a failure in the eyes of the people we love. But they are also lines which speak of social determinism – the reason Suzy Storck will always show her mother up, the reason her husband will never be proud of her is because she is attempting to claim a form of agency which is not available to people from her class background: she attempts 'to refuse to fulfil certain obligations of a personal, physical and indeed economic character […] to refuse to fulfil her conjugal duty by not having any children'.

Suzy Storck is a play which asks us to keep on interrogating it, to keep on investigating, and trying to understand. Rehearsals are over now. We have arrived at a point where we need an audience to continue probing the play with us. Throughout the run, we'll come to understand much more (as you do with any great play). I'm looking forward to it.

'Here we go.
This is how the story starts
'...
Array ( [0] => Array ( [id] => 193 [created] => 1509536940 [updated] => [ordering_count] => 184 [intro] => Assistant Director Ben Hadley on the final week of Suzy Storck rehearsals... [title] => Suzy Storck rehearsals: Week 4 [slug] => suzy-storck-rehearsals-week-4 [category_id] => 0 [body] => There are lines that break my heart. When Suzy says,

'I promised my Mum not to show her up
I want my husband Hans Vassily to be proud of me
'

that's heartbreaking. Because of the implication that, whatever Suzy does, she's going to show her Mum up. Whatever she does, her husband is never going to be proud of her. That's brutal. She's trying so hard.

It's funny, in the final week of rehearsals, how a piece jumps in and out of focus. Scenes that were exciting suddenly fall flat; others leap into gear. So you go back to those lines. The ones that always do something to you. The ones that always break your heart or make you smile or knock the breath out of you. You remember what they do to you. You remember the effect of the sound they make, and it all comes back... ('Like a body from the earth / Like a story you dig up', as Suzy herself says of her own story).

'They might not want to look at you, during the performance,' says Jean-Pierre. 'Not because they're bored. Because it's difficult to watch. They might want to look down, they might want to look inside themselves. That's OK. It's a play that makes us uncomfortable. We all feel the emotion in a similar way. But what it's doing politically is not comfortable, and not everyone will feel its politics in the same way.'

Since the beginning of the project, before rehearsals started, even, we have been having conversations about class. We have spoken about class with Ellen, the artistic director of the Gate, who invited Jean-Pierre to direct a show here, with Chris Campbell, who translated the play, and with the cast. Questions about class, or 'social determinism' as Jean-Pierre says, are central to Suzy Storck. 'My father was a factory worker from Senegal, and my mother was a middle-class, Jewish lawyer,' Jean-Pierre tells us in one rehearsal. 'In all the shows I've made, the question of class has come up.' What's particular about this production, though, is how the question translates from a French context to a British one.

At the beginning of Suzy Storck, the Chorus tells us that the story happens 'here, right here', before adding that 'the exact geography of where it happens doesn't matter'. It's a paradox. For me, it speaks about our role as an audience: it tells us that whoever is in the room, watching, listening, is implicated. It doesn't matter whether we're watching the piece in France or in England, in the city or in the country, in an affluent area or a poor one, we bear a responsibility for what happens. We cannot use the excuse of the characters being from a different place or different class background to create a safe distance for ourselves. We are implicated in this tragedy.

But geography does matter. It's partly why the play is so difficult to translate. At one point, the Chorus suggests that we (the audience) probably think this is happening in the sort of place you find only idiots and 'bouseux'. 'Bouseux' is a French slur which conflates rural life with stupidity and the excrement of farmyard animals – it tells us, 'these are people who are as thick as the shit they shovel for a living'. The problem for the translator is that this isn't a group that we tend to identify in England. For a long time France retained a rural population in a way that England didn't, because of reasons related to the scale and pace of their respective industrializations. Perhaps this is why, in England, we don't tend to direct our contempt at rural populations in the same way. Instead, it is the 'townies', 'chavs' and, more recently, 'bigots' living in small towns who are despised by the city-dwelling, theatre-going middle classes. These 'liberal, metropolitan elites' typically associate small-mindedness and stupidity with small towns and dog shit rather than the countryside and cow pats. Of course, what the Chorus is doing is confronting the audience with these (their?) prejudices: how working class people from rural backgrounds are perceived, but, simultaneously, also preconceptions about the 'type of person' who goes to the theatre, or lives in the city.

But to come back to the term 'bouseux': if it is impossible to translate, how can the piece speak to us about class experiences in a different country? For me, the way we can overcome the issue of 'geography' is by coming back to those lines which always resonate, wherever we are:

'I promised my Mum not to show her up
I want my husband Hans Vassily to be proud of me
'

because there is something universal in these lines – we all understand the pain of being a failure in the eyes of the people we love. But they are also lines which speak of social determinism – the reason Suzy Storck will always show her mother up, the reason her husband will never be proud of her is because she is attempting to claim a form of agency which is not available to people from her class background: she attempts 'to refuse to fulfil certain obligations of a personal, physical and indeed economic character […] to refuse to fulfil her conjugal duty by not having any children'.

Suzy Storck is a play which asks us to keep on interrogating it, to keep on investigating, and trying to understand. Rehearsals are over now. We have arrived at a point where we need an audience to continue probing the play with us. Throughout the run, we'll come to understand much more (as you do with any great play). I'm looking forward to it.

'Here we go.
This is how the story starts
'...
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