From Poison by Lot Vekemans

Poison was one of the featured plays in hotINK at the Lark 2013, an annual international festival of play readings curated by Catherine Coray and produced at the Lark Play Development Center in New York. You’ll find an interview with author Lot Vekemans and translator Rina Vergano below the play excerpt.

Part 1

We see the chapel of a cemetery: an empty, white room containing a number of chairs. A water cooler and a coffee machine. HE is seated on a chair against the wall, a beaker of water in his hand. SHE enters, damp from the rain and a little chaotic.

SHE: You’re early

I saw your car standing there and I thought: he’s early

HE: It didn’t take as long as I thought

SHE: Shitty weather

HE: Yeah

SHE: Is the weather this shitty where you are too?

HE: Where we are?

SHE: In Normandy I mean

HE: Oh yeah, I mean, yeah yeah

They look at each other.

HE: You haven’t changed a bit

SHE: Oh, well don’t look too closely

HE takes letter out of his pocket and holds it up.

HE: I only got it the day before yesterday

SHE: I didn’t know if you’d get it in time

HE: I meant to phone you to say I was coming

But em…

I’m not much of a phoner

SHE: No, no, I’ve noticed

HE: But I’m here

SHE: Yes, you’re here

You been here long?

HE: Twenty minutes

Half an hour, at most

SHE: Have you already been to his grave

HE: It looks lovely

SHE: I do my best

HE: It’s quiet here

SHE: It usually is in cemeteries

HE: Not many people I mean

SHE: Perhaps no one’s died this week

HE: Sorry?

SHE: That’s why it’s so quiet

HE: Oh I see yeah

Well anyway they probably won’t be burying any more people here will they

Considering the situation

SHE: No

No, probably not no

HE: Are we the only ones at this meeting?

SHE: They wanted to speak to everyone personally

HE: Okay

Don’t you want to sit down?

SHE: In a minute

I’ve got bulbs in the car

Tulip bulbs

I wanted to plant them

HE: Now?

SHE: Yes or in a while

When it’s less wet

HE: Right

So here we are then

SHE: Yes, here we are then

HE: I don’t really know what to say

SHE: Neither do I

HE: You look good

SHE: Do you think so?

HE: Yes, I do

SHE: That’s nice, nice of you to say so

Even though you probably don’t mean it

HE: I do mean it

SHE: Then it’s even nicer of you

You too

HE: What?

SHE: You look good too

HE: Thanks

SHE: France is doing you good, obviously

HE: Yes yes it probably is

Shall we sit down?

SHE: Fine

They sit down, first SHE. HE’s a bit unsure which seat to choose. Goes to sit next to her first of all, then reconsiders. Leaves a couple of chairs empty between them.

HE: Nothing’s changed here then

SHE: No

HE: Just that enormous hedge has disappeared outside I noticed

SHE: Too much upkeep

Just like those rose bushes in the middle

Someone’s got to look after them and that’s too much of a cost

HE: I though it might have been because of the poison

SHE: No, no, it’s got nothing to do with the poison

HE: Ridiculous, eh?

SHE: It’s dreadful

HE: And they’ve only just found out about it

SHE: They’re talking about moving two hundred graves

HE: Two hundred!

SHE: It was in the papers

HE: So it is as bad as it said in the letter?

SHE: Probably yes

HE: I thought it wasn’t all that serious

I mean, it said it wasn’t a public health risk

SHE: It’s in the groundwater

That’s what it said, didn’t it?

HE: Yes, well, whatever, I expect we’ll find out soon enough

Would you like a drink?

Coffee, tea?

Water?

SHE: No, thanks

HE gets up and walks to the coffee machine.

HE: Wow

SHE: What?

HE: They’ve got espresso, double espresso, cappuccino and latte

SHE: Yes, that’s new

HE chooses a coffee. Drinks some.

HE: Not bad

Do you think they’ll come and get us?

SHE: No idea

Long silence.

SHE: I’m finding this difficult

HE: Let’s see what the options are first of all

SHE: No, I mean sitting here together, waiting

Having to sit here…waiting

And not having seen you for years

And not having any idea how you are

And you not having any idea how I am

And not knowing what to say

And absolutely breaking my neck for a pee

HE: (laughs) Then maybe you should just go to the loo

SHE: Yeah, sorry

SHE goes. HE stays behind, hears a door opening somewhere.

HE: Hallo?

Is anyone there?

HE goes and looks in the direction the sound came from. Knocks on a door.

HE: Is anyone there?

HE tries the door, but it’s locked. HE sits down again. HIS mobile phone rings.

HE: Oui

Oui c’était moi

Non, je suis arrivé

Non non ça va

Non, elle n’est pas ici maintenant

Dans la toilette

Oui, la toilette

J’ai aucune idée

Je te rappelle plus tard, bien?

Merci

Moi aussi

Oui

A plus tard

HE turns off the mobile and puts it away. SHE comes in again.

SHE: Pfff, that’s a relief

HE smiles. SHE sits down. Short silence.

SHE: So, you don’t think I’ve changed?

HE: Not really

SHE: Not at all?

HE: You’ve got older

SHE: Yeah, what d’you expect

HE: I mean figuratively older

Wiser

Wise

Wiser

SHE: Wiser?

HE: Yes

SHE: (laughs) If only

HE: I’m glad to see you

On the way here I kept thinking:

How will she look?

How will she look now?

And I couldn’t stop thinking about the first time I ever saw you

SHE: That’s twenty years ago

HE: I couldn’t get it out of my head

I hope you’re glad to see me too

HE moves up closer to her.

SHE: No don’t touch me

HE: Sorry

SHE: Do you know what I find strange?

That things only happen when it doesn’t matter anymore

When you don’t really need it any more

HE: Are you talking about me?

SHE: Partly

HE: So it doesn’t really matter to you that I’m here

SHE: I’m not saying that

HE: You are saying that

SHE: But I don’t mean it

HE: You don’t need me any more

SHE: No

That’s positive isn’t it?

If you don’t need something any more

If you can do without it?

Not be dependent?

I mean it in a positive way

HE: So are you glad or not that I’m here?

SHE: I’m very glad you’re here

That we’re here now

Together

Washed ashore

So to speak

HE: Do you feel washed ashore?

SHE: Yeah well, no

In some way or other…yes

HE: In what way then?

SHE: Just

Yeah

Forget I said it

It’s more metaphorical

SHE gets up.

HE: Where are you going

SHE: I’m going to go and see if I can find someone

I mean

It’s nearly quarter past two

HE: I just heard a door

SHE: Where?

HE: Back there somewhere

SHE walks to the door that HE points out.

HE: It’s locked

SHE tries the door, knocks.

SHE: Hallo?

Is anyone there?

Mr. Alewijnse?

HE: Are you sure it was here?

SHE: That’s what it said in the letter

HE takes the letter and checks it through.

HE: Zuiderplantsoen 24-28

SHE: That’s here

Long silence.

SHE: 31st of December 1999

It’s a long time ago, eh?

HE: Yes

SHE: 31st of December 1999

HE: I know

SHE: At ten past seven

HE: You still know what time it was?

SHE: The door closed

I looked at the clock

Ten past seven

I can’t help it

I’ll just never forget it

HE: I’m sorry

SHE: What did you actually do that evening?

HE: I went to Plombières

SHE: To your mother’s house?

HE: Yes

A bit before midnight I stopped in a car park just outside Nancy

I was the only car there

And I watched the sky above Nancy light up

There was only light

No sound

I thought that was so strange

That I didn’t hear anything

That Nancy had entered a new millenium, silently, as far as I could hear

I felt

Yeah well actually, all sorts of things

I wanted to phone you, but then I thought: “Idiot, you just up and leave on a day like today and then go to phone her at midnight”

So I didn’t phone

SHE: I know

HE: It’s funny actually

Well, funny…

I can’t help noticing

More and more

How often you do things without really wanting to

SHE: Are you talking about that evening?

HE: No yeah, well yeah

I mean in general

For myself

That it’s funny

How often I do things without really wanting to

And don’t do what I actually want to do

That evening too, I think, yeah

SHE: You don’t need to apologise

HE: I’m not

It’s more of an insight that comes after the event

We probably all reach the same place in the end

SHE: Is that so?

HE: The same conclusion I mean

SHE: And what is that conclusion then?

According to you?

HE: That we do what we’d rather not

And don’t do what we’d rather do

SHE laughs.

That makes you laugh?

SHE: Yes, to hear you say that

I think it’s funny

HE: Oh

SHE: It is funny isn’t it?

HE: If you say so

SHE: Are you getting touchy?

You’re not going to start getting all touchy are you?

HE: No

SHE: But?

HE: But nothing

Just…

Short silence.

SHE: Don’t you think it’s bizarre seeing each other here after all these years?

HE says nothing.

I do

I think it’s bizarre

Bizarre how things turn out

HE: You could see it like that, yes

SHE: What would you call it then?

HE: I haven’t given it that much thought

SHE: You haven’t given it that much thought?

HE: No, I haven’t given it that much thought, no

SHE: You see me for the first time in ten years

HE: Nine years

SHE: In this place

And you haven’t given it that much thought

HE: No

SHE: Unbelievable

Is there anything you have given much thought?

Like what we’re going to do if it is all true

If it turns out that those two hundred graves do need to be moved

What we’re going to do then?

Where he’s supposed to go?

HE: I want to hear what they’ve got to say first

What the options are

And the costs of course

SHE: The costs?

HE: There are bound to be costs

SHE: We’re talking about Jacob’s reinterment and you’re talking about the costs!

HE: I’m sorry

I didn’t mean it like that

Not how you just said it

SHE: How then?

HE:  I just meant it in general

Please don’t do this

You know I didn’t mean it like that

It’s ridiculous to act as if I meant it like that

SHE goes to say something, thinks better of it, long silence.

SHE: I’m starving

HE: I’ve got a bit of chocolate somewhere

HE fumbles about in his jacket pockets, pulls out a bit of chocolate and give it to her.

HE: You used to be addicted

SHE: Yeah

HE: Are you still?

SHE: Trying to cut down

Do you want some?

HE: I’ve already had three bars

Silence. SHE eats chocolate.

SHE: Did you know that I got addicted to sleeping pills?

My doctor said it couldn’t do any harm

That it was normal

For a woman in my circumstances

Because of everything I’d been through

Very normal, those sleeping pills

It’s a reassurance

I mean, that it’s not going to escalate

The addiction

No such luck

HE: Sorry, I didn’t know

SHE: Do you know what the worst thing is about an addiction?

HE: That it’s so hard to get rid of, I should think?

SHE: That it’s so easy to develop one

It happens before you know it

You start off with a half

And then another half

Then a whole one

But not every night

Only if it’s really necessary of course

And it is really necessary

So many things are increasingly really necessary

Things that come in pots

Or handy blister strips

And before you know it you’re taking one every night

HE: That’s the way it goes yes

SHE: For a long time I hoped that you could really put things behind you

HE: And then?

SHE: And then?

Start again of course

Yeah, load of rubbish

It’s never the same again

However hard you try

New job

New house

New friends

HE: It’s never the same again

SHE: No

HE: Is that what you’d like?

SHE: Wouldn’t you?

HE: To erase everything?

SHE: And start again, yes

HE: But where would you begin?

SHE: Where?

HE: Yeah, where would you begin?

What day?

What exact moment would you start erasing?

And how would you know that what came after would be any better?

SHE: That’s a…

That’s a…stupid question

SHE fights back tears, HE walks over to her, embraces her for the first time.

HE: Sorry, I didn’t mean it that way

SHE: I miss him

I don’t miss him any less than I ever did

Is that crazy?

HE: No

SHE: And you?

Do you miss him?

HE: I think about him every day if that’s what you mean

SHE: I mean do you still miss him

HE: I don’t know what I’m supposed to miss

SHE: So you don’t miss him?

HE: I’m resigned to it

SHE: That he’s not here any more?

HE: That I miss him

Every day

Suffering is addictive, don’t you think?

There should be rehab centres for it

With compulsory admission

SHE: Is that what you think?

HE: It sounds a bit weird maybe

SHE: Weird?

No, not that weird

More like…heartless

Maybe heartless isn’t the right word either

More like…detached

As if it’s not personal

I don’t mean to you

More to The Journalist

Your Journalistic opinion, yeah

A Male opinion as well

A Male Journalistic Opinion about life

And suffering

HE: And what is this Male Journalistic Opinion then exactly?

SHE: The idea that you’re in control of your own life

And in control of your own suffering, too

HE: Don’t you believe that then?

To a certain degree?

SHE: No, I don’t believe it, no

Do you think it makes any difference?

What you do or what you don’t do?

Whether you’re rewarded?

Or punished?

Or even worse: that it gets you anywhere to ask:

“What do I need to learn from this?”

It makes me want to puke, that question

“What do I need to learn from this?”

Nothing

That life’s shit

Sometimes

For some people

Really shit

For completely unexplainable reasons

HE: I don’t know if I agree with that

SHE: Fine

SHE gets up and fetches a beaker of water. Downs it and fills it again.

SHE: Makes you thirsty

Chocolate

Tell me

Why haven’t you been in touch for ten years?

HE: You want to know that NOW?

SHE: Did you have another moment in mind?

A better moment perhaps?

HE: It’s not something you can just

That I can just…

Here and now…

You mean that I…

Right here

Right now

I’ve got to explain…

SHE: You must have thought about it

HE: Yes

SHE: Or maybe you’d rather say why you left in the first place?

HE: You know very well why I left

SHE: Do I?

HE: Yes

SHE: A bit of explaining doesn’t hurt, you know

HE: And then?

If I explain, what then?

Or if I say I’m sorry?

Does it make any difference?

SHE: Sometimes it’s nice to know you were right retrospectively

HE: Being sorry’s not the same as being right

SHE: So, you’ve really given it a lot of thought, eh?

Sorry, I’m a bit fucked up

It’s this whole mess here

HE: We could go outside for a bit

Go for a walk

SHE: In this weather?

HE: You used to like rain

Walking in the rain

SHE: Yes

HE: Well then

SHE: I’m not sure

HE: I’ll go on my own then

HE is about to go.

SHE: Don’t…

HE: What?

SHE: No, nothing

I’ll have another look and see if I can find someone

HE: I’ll be right back

SHE: Yes, of course

HE goes. SHE stays behind, takes a drink and sits down.

Interview with Lot Vekemans and Rina Vergano

IT: Please describe the process of your collaboration–how it came about, how you worked together, what you found most rewarding, challenging, surprising, and so forth.

RV: I first came to work with Lot on her award-winning play Truckstop (2005), and I think I was recommended to her by either the Dutch Theatre Institute (TIN) or another playwright whose work I’d translated. With Truckstop we worked together pretty closely–but first I had to meet her in person, and at first she was very protective of the play and I felt like I had to win her trust. I think it’s a very intimate thing, really, to allow a stranger access to “your baby,” which is what a play is to a playwright. But anyway, we met and we liked each other and I think she took a chance on me. She is quite cautious by nature, and (rightly) protective of her work.

I’m very fortunate in my work in that I’ve translated work by Dutch playwrights whom I consider to be the best in their field. It takes time to build up a strong relationship-and if you do, it’s a bit like a marriage! You come to understand their style, their ideas, their obsessions, and that makes it easier to translate their work. I am also a playwright and dramaturg myself, so that does help, and I’ve been working in and around the theatre for 35 years now, so I (hope that) I have a very good understanding of the genre. I develop special relationships with some writers, and I would say that Lot is one of them–I really admire her work, and I think there is a lot of mutual trust and understanding between us.

The story with translating Poison isn’t that exciting, I’m afraid. Lot just emailed me and told me that she’d really like to submit the play to hotINK, that the deadline was quite short and could I please translate it for her…. She sent it to me and I read it and thought it was a really strong play, so I immediately agreed. So the translation I made is especially for hotINK insofar as it’s a “first version”–this means that it’s not a “final version” or an “authorised version.” It’s perfectly suitable for a reading, or a script-in-hand production, but if it were to have a full professional production I would go through the whole play again almost word for word with Lot and make an authorised version.

I like to actually physically sit next to the playwright and read the translation through together, with the original Dutch next to it. This used to be much easier when I lived in Amsterdam, which I did for 20 years. I now live back in the UK in Bristol, so I have to make do with telephone calls, emails, and Skype–which is actually very useful. So, Lot and I haven’t worked intensively together on this play, because there was not the time or the opportunity to do that. Instead, I sent her my first draft, which she read through, and then she emailed me back with some comments and questions. Then I made some adjustments and emails went back and forth until I was happy with my first version. It sounds a little cold-blooded, working like this, but actually in general it works really well!

LV: As Rina told you, we did not really work together on this translation simply because there was no time. I asked her to make a working draft translation as she had translated another play of mine (Truckstop) in the past and she’d done a really good job with it. Rina did an amazing job, and she had only a couple of weeks. I read the working draft and was very happy with it. What was important for me was that Rina would find the correct tone of the play, as I believe this is an important issue.

IT: Lot, could you describe how, if at all, the play has evolved in production?

LV: The play was written without a commission and developed within a playwrights’ group in Amsterdam. I tested it there in different stages with other playwrights and two actors (I wrote the play for them), and then finally in a reading with an audience. When NTGent decided to produce the play it was already finished. I only changed some minor things during the rehearsals.

IT: In Poison, what remains unspoken seems as important as–if not more important than–what is said. Lot, what interests you about the unspoken or unspeakable, and how did you decide what to have your characters disclose and what to have them withhold? And Rina, how did you work with the dialogue’s elliptical quality?

LV: For me the most interesting thing about theatre writing is that you only have the dialogue as an instrument. You can only work with the spoken word. But the beautiful thing about spoken language is that it both reveals what you want to say and what you do not want to say. Words are therefore also an entrance to what remains unspoken. I think this is true for all theatre writing but especially in this play, since there is so much emotional pain in both characters that has closed the door to communication. Bringing them back together after many years of separation does not automatically open that door. On the contrary, they try to avoid speaking about what has happened, they try to avoid the obvious questions to each other. Especially in the first part every sentence is careful, as the woman is trying to keep herself together and the man is doing his very best not to hurt the woman. Of course they cannot keep up with this. I think that what I tried to do is show how we use language to defend ourselves, because we feel unsafe as we muddle through our deepest emotional pain. On the other hand it is also the gateway to awareness and connection. We sometimes truly open up because someone says something profound to us. Both characteristics of the spoken word are in the play, although I must say that I was never aware of this when I started to write it. It is therefore not something I did deliberately-it more or less happened this way. When I started to rewrite the play, I could better choose their outflanking moves, because I knew where the characters would end.

RV: To work with the elliptical quality I actually have to hear their voices inside my head while translating and think–

SHE: I’m very glad you’re here

That we’re here now

Together

Washed ashore

So to speak

HE: Do you feel washed ashore?

SHE: Yeah well, no

In some way or other…yes

HE: In what way then?

SHE: Just

Yeah

Forget I said it

It’s more metaphorical

I think this is a great little exchange. It contains the fact that they don’t really understand each other, it’s awkward, uncomfortable, and yet they are trying their best. Also it contains a lost intimacy–they used to be married and had a child together, but now they are a bit like strangers. It’s all in the nuances of the text, so I try and reproduce that in English with the same kind of atmosphere and feel that it has in Dutch. I very much look at the dynamics–I’m constantly asking myself: what’s actually going on here between these two people. He said this, and she said that, but what’s really going on? And I also really listen out for the musicality of language–I like my translations to have strong beats and good cadence, so that actors can actually say the words. I talk to myself out loud a lot when translating to check that an actor could say what I’ve just typed! I don’t always succeed. But I see translating as a process of profit and loss-on one page you might get what I call a gift from the writer: a phrase in Dutch which translates brilliantly into English, which is in fact far better in English than in Dutch. That’s profit–it’s pure luck really! On another page I might get a phrase that is so perfect in Dutch, whatever I do I can’t make it that strong in English, or I have to use an approximation–that’s loss. And that’s kind of how it goes.

IT: What other aspects of the characters’ speech were you most concerned about preserving in translation?

LV: As a playwright, I work very specifically on the sound of my text. Although my language seems to be very natural and accessible, it is written as a music score. The rhythm, timbre, and sound are very important and work together with the literal meaning of the words to communicate with the audience. When my work is translated it is important that the translated play finds a new, coherent sound that has a comparable effect to the original Dutch sound. I truly believe that the emotional work needs to come from the words–it needs to lead the actors and the audience to the deeper layers of the play. The effort is not for the actor to lead the words, but to follow them. Therefore, the translation needs to have this specific quality. I think Rina did a great job in this.

RV: Lot’s work is very well written–so well that it almost translates itself. Then it really is a joy to translate something, if all the beats of the language are in the right place to start with, if the writer is spare with text and very precise with the words they use (as Lot is), with shades of meaning. Lot has a very economical style and her sentences are sometimes like small bombshells. It’s a very dramatic style and her plays are what I would call real actors’ plays–and real directors’ plays too. What I mean is that they seem to jump off the page and onto the stage themselves, because she’s such a good writer. When I’m translating her work, even if I haven’t seen the play in the first place, I can almost see it playing itself out in my head. In fact, that’s how I always know it’s a good play–if I feel like I’m watching it inside my head and hearing those voices, as I translate.

With this play, the challenge is to get the intention right–so in a few places (also because I hadn’t seen it, and because her work needs to be interpreted by a director, by actors) I had to check with her what the intention of the character was with a line. Also, it helps if you know the Dutch–Lot is very Dutch–because they are pretty forthright, they don’t mince their words. They say what they mean. So perhaps there is less subtext in a Dutch play than in an English play, because the English never say what they mean directly!

A common theme with both plays of hers that I’ve translated is the way that characters in the plays experience the same thing from their own point of view. So they might have a totally different personal experience of something that’s happened–in this case, the loss of a child. They each have their own memories, and keep checking with each other to find out how the other remembers things. This is very clever, nuanced writing, very observational and quite psychological. It’s also very soulful and intelligent. That’s why I love to translate Lot’s work. There’s so much in it–it opens up like a box of tricks in front of you.

Bios

Lot Vekemans

Lot Vekemans (b. 1965) studied Social Geography at the University of Utrecht. After her study she visited the Writerschool “t Colofon” in Amsterdam and graduated there in 1993 as a playwright. Since 1995, she has written numerous plays for children as well as for adults.

She wrote among other things for Artemis Geen gewoon Meisje (Not an Ordinary Girl). Hé payo for Het lab van de Berenkuil, Truckstop for the MUZtheater (2001) and Het Toneel Speelt (2010), Vreemde vogels (Strange Birds) for Kwatta, Licht! (Light!) for Barra, the monologues Zus van (Sister of) and Judas for her own company MAM, Ledacourt for Het Zuidelijk Toneel, Mind your step 2 for the Panta Theatre in France, and Gif (Poison) for NTGent.

In 2005, she received the prestigious Van derVies award (three-year award for best play) for Truckstop and Zus van. For her play Gif (Poison) she was awarded the Taalunie Toneelschrijfprijs 2010 (award for the best Dutch play staged in 2009/2010).

In April 2012, her first novel Een bruidsjurk uit Warschau (A Bridal Gown from Warsaw) was published and nominated for the Anton Wachterprijs 2012 (a two-year award for the best Dutch/Flemish debut).

Her plays have been staged successfully in the United Kingdom, Belgium, France, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Luxemburg, Romania, South Africa, Namibia, Mexico, China, Russia, Spain, Argentina, and Brazil.

Rina Vergano

Translator and playwright Rina Vergano started out working at London's Roundhouse theatre, and then spent 20 years living and working in Amsterdam. She has translated around 55 Dutch, Flemish, and Italian plays, and specializes in work for younger audiences. Many of her translated plays have won awards in their country of origin, have toured in the UK and internationally, and have been published. Rina is also a theatre journalist and dramaturg, and she organizes regular retreats for writers in the UK. She is represented by Joanna Marston at the Rosica Colin agency in London.

Gif. Copyright (c) Lot Vekemans, 2009. English translation copyright (c) Rina Vergano, 2012.