Thursday 11 January 2018

Terry Pratchett's «Trois sœurcières»

Today we’re joined by an old friend of TFF, Serge Keller, who is directing a stage version of Terry Pratchett’s Weird Sisters (translated into French) for performance in Fribourg, Switzerland this spring. Here is a bit of information about the production, and then below that Serge answers a few questions—as you can see, it’s a topic he’s very excited about!

(Wyrd Sisters) Trois sœurcières
Illustration by Cécile Matthey
Terry Pratchett in French? Mais oui!

Probably for the very first time in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, the Théâtre de la Cité presents an amateur production of:

Trois sœurcières (Wyrd Sisters)
by Terry Pratchett®
Adapted by Stephen Briggs
French translation of the novel by Patrick Couton, for Librairie L'Atalante
At the Théâtre de la Cité, Grandes-Rames 36, Fribourg (Switzerland)
19th of April – 12th of May 2018
More information:

The Future Fire: Of all the novels in Pratchett’s “Witches” cycle, Weird Sisters has obvious connections to theatre and metatheatre, making it a good choice for adaptation as a stage performance. Is there anything that attracted you to the Witches stories in particular?

Serge Keller: Yes, the Shakespearian and theatrical references are incredibly numerous and rich in Wyrd Sisters, and they interconnect in strange ways too. It’s part of what fascinates me about Terry Pratchett’s writing; the stories are good per se, and the characters are fantastic. But intellectually, Terry’s work is most satisfying because there’s so much to discover in it! We saw a reconstruction of his study at the magnificent “Terry Pratchett: HisWorld” exhibition at the Salisbury Museum, and I was not surprised to see such a huge library around his desk. After some nine months of rehearsal, our theatre group are still discovering new things in the text.

Of course, Macbeth and Hamlet (and its “play within a play” scene) are the most evident ones. The Germans have even translated Wyrd Sisters under the title “Macbest"! But there are references to Lewis Carrol as well (Lady Felmet’s obsession with executions and red dresses) and even the Grimm stories (especially connected to the famed witch Black Aliss). But the fact that “three witches work better than two or four” (I paraphrase) also is a reference to much older myths: the Norse Norns, or even the Roman Parcae.

As for the final scenes where (without giving too much away) the “play within a play” goes completely pear-shaped and Hwel, the Dwarf stage director, almost loses it and at the same time must rebuild the failing nerves of three actresses, as amateur players it’s pure bliss. We all really did have such experiences backstage! I simply must believe that Terry had seen, perhaps even taken part in, an amateur production backstage at some point in his life… It simply has the colour of truth. The only other play I’m aware of that illustrates so well the anguish and tragedies occurring backstage during a play is the marvellous Noises Off by Michael Frayn (oh, I’d love to direct that one, one day! But, man, building that revolving stage will be murder…)

As for what attracted us to this play in particular: you must keep in mind that Terry Pratchett is not that well known in the French-speaking world (more on which later), and this despite the stellar work of his French translator, Patrick Couton for the editor Librairie L’Atalante. He even won a prestigious French speculative fiction prize, the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire, in 1998 specifically for his work as translator of Terry’s novels! But the sad truth is that speculative fiction still bears the mark of “minor literature,” if not even “for kids only,” in the francophonie.

Furthermore, it’s the first time that a Pratchett play will be staged in our theatre, or in Fribourg. Heck, it’s the first time ever in the whole French-speaking Switzerland! (He’s occasionally staged in the German-speaking part, as he is much more well known there). And it’s not quite the kind of play our usual public is used to.

So we took a gamble, but tried to tip the odds in our favour by choosing one of the first books in the “Witches” series. As fans, both my co-director and myself know very well that practically every Discworld story can be read on its own, almost in any order. It’s one of the astounding strengths of Terry as an author: he does not assume that you already know something about Discworld (although if you do, you’ll enjoy the book even more), but he never repeats himself while brushing up some basic information for newcomers. But we won’t be able to explain this beforehand to our public: it’s simply reassuring for them to think that they’ll discover something “in the right order.” Must be a Swiss thing!

The Wyrd Sisters story is also pretty satisfying in itself: we can use the Macbeth references as a starting point to talk about it (everybody has heard of Shakespeare), but we can immediately add, “but it’s with lots of gags, you’ll have good fun.” A bit reductive, perhaps, but it works in getting people interested in an English chap they never heard of. Of course, when we happen to stumble on a fan, we just need to say “Trois sœurcières” ("Wyrd Sisters”) and they’ll stop us immediately: “When does it take place? I’m in!”

So, there’s the “approachability” aspect. But it also made our work easier for us: the marvellous stage adaptations by Stephen Briggs are available in English, of course, but no official French translation exists. During my research, I realised that only two plays were already available in French, albeit not officially: Mort and Wyrd Sisters. The latter was staged in Lyon in 2009. Of course, no official edition existed, but I contacted both theatre groups and, as luck has it, both had still a copy of their stage play, which they had adapted themselves from Brigg’s English adaptation and from Couton’s French translation of the novel.

Anne-Marie Lehmann (2016),
actress who will play Nanny Ogg
Just to be sure, we double-checked every sentence and made a few amendments to stick more closely to Brigg’s and Couton’s (and Pratchett’s, of course) work. Then, it was just a matter of asking all those parties for the rights and hope that they would agree to let us play it—which they most graciously did.

That’s for the “availability” and “rights” aspects. But what really settled things for us was when we found our three witches. And I think that both physically and in character, we really found excellent incarnations of Nanny, Granny and Magrat! I can’t wait to get pictures of them in full dress… When all three actresses said yes, that really was the clincher. I don’t mind telling you: talking to an actress and telling her, “There’s this project we have, and there would be a main character that we would love you to play—oh, you so much would fit the part!”, and then her, flattered, asking you, “Which part is it?”, and then realising the next thing you’ll say to her will be “Oh… Er… It’s a witch, actually”—it has been one of the hardest things I have ever done, and I’ve worked as a zoo warden!

To their credit, all three agreed to come to a first reading… And well, they simply fell in love with the text and the characters! So I really credit Terry’s writing for having convinced our three main protagonists.

TFF: Can you explain how the title “Trois sœurcières” carries over into French some of the connotation or flavour of the English “Wyrd Sisters”?

Pratchett's writing desk at HisWorld (photo Serge Keller)
SK: Ah, yes… Of course, as we say in Italian: “traduttore, traditore,” to translate is to betray the original author’s intent. Terry’s writing is brilliant, and only superficially simple. To translate it is not an easy task, for sure… I’m always surprised by how popular Discworld is amongst German-speaking people, despite what I think of as a mediocre translation (perhaps they read him in English instead?). But Patrick Couton, who by the way is only partly a translator (he’s also a musician), has from the beginning had a clever approach: when a joke or a play on words is impossible to translate from English to French, he always has tried to replace it with another joke or play on words in French elsewhere, so as “to maintain the gags-to-text ratio” between languages. But what I appreciate is that, contrary to Douglas Adam’s painful French translations, he has not tried to overdo it or to put himself above Terry’s work while doing it.

Our play title (which is also the novel’s title in French, by the way) is a good illustration of his way of doing things. The original “Wyrd Sisters", of course, references the original “Macbeth". In the usual translations of Shakespeare’s Scottish Play, however, they’re rendered variously as “trois sœurs fatales” (Banquo, Act II, sc. 1) or as “les sœurs fatidiques” (Macbeth, Act IV, sc. 1). Etymologically, this links the Sisters to the fate, the destiny of Macbeth, or even to the prophecy they bestow upon him. But this rings rather heavily in French ears: perfect for a drama, but for a comedy?

Couton’s translation as “Sœurcières” makes a clever porte-manteau with “Soeurs” (Sisters) and “Sorcières” (Witches), and could be rendered in English by “Three Witchsisters” (or “Three Bewitching Sisters”). The self-evident (for English ears) reference of “Wyrd Sisters” could not be rendered in French, since our own “Macbeth” translations are not consistent in this and the locution/allusion is not easily recognizable for us. The French title, read out loud, just sounds like “Three Witches,” which is at least descriptive. But when you see it in writing, Couton gives you another “play on words,” which immediately gives us the notion that these witches are very closely bound together, like sisters.

There are many other similar examples we stumbled upon, while working on the text. To help the actresses and actors, who were for the majority unfamiliar with Pratchett or even British culture, Alain Le Coultre and myself took the trouble to include some 20 pages of annotations, culled from the Discworld Companion, the Folklore of Discworld and the good old online Terry Pratchett File. We also did two workshops on Discworld and on Macbeth (mainly the Orson Welles version, which we also screened for the more interested). Some of them are only reading those notes now, which I totally understand (they first had to learn their lines! Priorities!), but they are all suddenly realising that we’re stepping into something so much bigger than a parody play… Which is a hugely satisfying process to observe, as a director!

By the way, I just had a short exchange online with an Icelandic woman, who told me in Iceland the title translates as “Sisters of fate”, to which I added that in Italian ("Sorellanza stregonesca”) it would be “Witchy Sisterhood”. But the most original seem to be the Germans, with “Macbest”, which is also a pretty good pun I think…

TFF: How will this play fit in with the previous titles you have directed or your theatre group have performed?

SK: Not really well, actually—I don’t know about Britain, but “amateur theatre” at our latitudes is often associated with panto (two out-of-work actors in a horse suit) or French comedy (lots of scantily clad women, double-entendres and doors opened and shut violently throughout). Which is false, of course, as are practically all clichés! I’ve seen work by amateur ensembles on such classics as the Cyrano that were better than professional productions! For me, “amateur” is not about “not being able to do something as well as a professional” but about “loving what we do so much that we do it in our free time, not as a paid profession.” That’s the only difference: the ticket paid at our theatre goes towards covering play rights, costumes, stage, electricity, and so on, but no salaries.

That said, our theatre group began almost 60 years ago with a repertoire of precisely such light French comedies. It’s really the merit of our “founding fathers” (they were four men) if, as time went by, they tried to bite into some more difficult plays. And even then, at the beginning, some pretty old plays—they were, after all, in the public domain and money was scarce! But even so, they did try Molière, and not only the easy comedies. And with time, not only did they take a liking to more difficult plays, but our public did as well. The fact that we have our very own theatre stage (a rarity amongst amateur groups here in Switzerland) also allows us to have four to five different plays during the season, so we can now allow ourselves some more risky experimentations.

Richard III (2008) © TCF (stage design by Cécile Matthey)
And this is how some years ago we tried for the very first time a Shakespeare play (Richard III). What an adventure that was! A cast of only eight people for all those roles (and three of them played Richard, since he had such a long part to learn), and only six months to set it up (we had to replace another play that fell through: we usually take nine months for a play, as we rehearse only once per week and only in the evenings). Commercially, it was a catastrophe: some evenings, the public only outnumbered us by one or two persons (we can seat 100 people). But every single one of our spectators (and we could speak to every single one of them afterwards) hugely enjoyed it, and often did not expect to enjoy it (“I’m not educated enough for Shakespeare, I only came to see my daughter on stage: but what a story!”).

All this to say, that our usual fare tends towards comedy, even if not only comedy is staged at the Théâtre de la Cité. We also go for sure crowd-pleasures (Murder on the Nile, by Agatha Christie). And if British writers are not common in our repertoire, we did stage Alan Ayckbourn’s How the Other Half Loves) and Harold Pinter (The Lover, one of our most resounding successes).

So, because we are an old ensemble, with lots of people working in ever-changing sub-projects (the plays we stage during the season) and with quite a lot of directors, old and young ones alike (we regularly include newcomers in our ensemble), I can’t really say that we have a strong “editorial line.” But Pratchett is certainly a first, and British humour as well. Although… we did Alice in Wonderland for our 50th Jubilee, and although it did not exactly conform to Lewis Carroll’s wonderful original (a French adaptation including Pinocchio and a Barbie doll), both children and adults loved it.

Alice et autres merveilles (2010) © TCF
So I guess it’s a first for us (we strive never to repeat the same play, even after 60 years, although we may revisit the same author), but Wyrd Sisters also nicely inscribes itself in our long-standing tradition of sometimes (at least once a year) straying out of the familiar paths and bringing something unfamiliar to our public. They usually play the game, and the fact that we can present this as a comedy will certainly not intimidate them: they do like a good laugh, and Terry is a gift for that! The man made me laugh in a simple footnote about the speed of light on Discworld, for crying out loud!

TFF: Which is your favourite of the three main witches, Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg or Margrat Garlick; and most importantly, why?

Ah, the very question I was afraid of… I’m tempted by a “Swiss answer": I love them all, each for her own qualities. But I’ll play along…

At a first reading, the obvious witch that you could care a bit less about is certainly Magrat. She’s a bit of a wet hen, after all (Nanny’s words, not mine!), and seems to be present essentially to give the reader a “vessel” through which to discover and observe the other two. But look at Magrat more closely: she’s young, impressionable, somewhat shy and full of funny ideas (and she loves fluffy bunnies), but there are moments were she stands her own in front of such a formidable witch as Nanny Ogg herself! That’s not the mark of a wet hen… I think the trouble for her is that she’s a young witch, still a bit unexperienced (especially regarding men), but a pretty good witch nevertheless. But Granny and Nanny are such formidable, larger-than-life characters that Magrat appears more ordinary, if only by contrast!

Indeed, I must say I really quite like Magrat: she makes her own way, she refuses to wear a hat (not for the same reasons as Tiffany Aching, but nevertheless, for a witch!), she has her own ideas and stands by them, even if sometimes they’re a bit silly… And she learns, she can learn by observing the other two. Which is one of the most important things in life…

Granny Weatherwax, now, would be the obvious choice: she’s formidable, the most powerful witch in the Discworld (“She Who Must Be Avoided” the Ramtops trolls flatteringly call her), master of headology and we all had a granny or a teacher like that once in our lives. Most importantly, she knows who is the enemy she must most carefully be afraid of: herself. Such power could make her go cackling anytime… But she’s also difficult, although always fair, and she’s somebody that you could certainly admire but I wonder if you could really get along with her… Nanny manages it, of course, and Tiffany Aching seems to command her respect at the very least (which is saying something!).

 Nanny Ogg's Cookbook, © Terry Pratchett and Paul Kidby
Nanny Ogg, if I really must choose, would be my favourite, but only just. She’s a true force of nature, she reminds me of some callipygian prehistoric statuettes found in archeological digs. She’s really the personification of Mother Earth, and a bit like Nanny we all knew at one time or another a formidable old woman who could dance on tables and gulp down pints, all the while keeping an innocent wrinkled-apple-like smile on her face. But watch out for that twinkle in her eye! There’s one word to define Nanny, and it’s: formidable (she has forms and she’s admirable!). And it just so happens that I had a granny and have a mother that both have a bit of Nanny in them, so…

Overall, I’m most fascinated by Tiffany Aching, who does not appear in our play. I love how we see her evolve through her books, and I think it’s evident that Terry Pratchett had a very good subject to observe for Tiffany in his own daughter, Rhianna.

There may be other influences too, but I’m very much impressed by how, as a man, he could describe so well so many credible women characters. Having been essentially brought up by a strong, single woman myself, I of course explored some strong women characters in the first plays I directed - and in this sense, Pratchett’s Witches certainly are a continuation of that.

But there’s also something else in this play, and it’s what is the meaning of theatre. It’s something that I’m just beginning to explore, after some 30 years of amateur dramatics, and I think it will be the theme of my director’s work for a couple more plays at least. The force of words, the magic of a stage… There’s a magnificent monologue in one of Eduardo de Filippo’s Neapoletan plays where a character measures up a court, and thinks to himself that in that space they could fit a nice stage. Two meters by three, but in no bigger a space than that they already did in the past all of Shakespeare, and wars, and love stories, and all the anguish and the hope in the world…

The power of words uttered from three planks placed above four barrels. What is that if not pure magic?

TFF: Do you have any final thoughts about this play you’d like to share with us?

SK: I’ll conclude with just a small anecdote related to our play. As I already said, Terry Pratchett is not so well known (yet) in the French-speaking world, although his fans certainly are dedicated! Some years back, I noticed that my usual theatre director for 10 years, Alain Le Coultre, had a Discworld book sticking out of his bag. “You know Terry Pratchett?!” “I love him! Do you know him as well?!” In some twenty years or more, it was the first time we encountered another “Pratchetteer". And we knew there and then we simply had to bring Pratchett to our theatre!

During the first readings, where we ask our theatre group who would be interested to have a part in our play, we asked everyone who already knew Pratchett. About twenty people were in (for some forty parts, so there will be some hectic dress changes backstage!), but only two already were fans (one joined our group expressly to be part of a Pratchett play: it will be his very first time on a stage!), so about 10%.

Serge Keller (as Hercule Poirot, 2016)
We’re now some nine months of work in (still 101 days to go!) and not only have all of them loved the play and are taking great pleasure in rehearsing it and learning their lines, but they have practically all bought the novel as well. Our Nanny is rapidly becoming a rabid Pratchetteer, having bought and read all the Witches novels, and she’s already sinking her teeth in the Watch series now, so I think we can count her as a convert, and both our Granny and our Magrat have already bought and read three to four more Discworld books each. All the other players also have asked for more information, and a good two-thirds of them have bought one or two more books in the series.

Of course, they’re all subjectively drawn towards Pratchett’s work by their being part of the play… But they’re a very diverse bunch of people (biologists, teachers, politicians, students, printers, physicists, nurses) from very different backgrounds (a majority are French-speaking, of course, but we have also a couple of Italians, and our Hwel is a Greek waiter looking for a new job, and so on). Nevertheless, they’re all been drawn together by the threads woven by Terry Pratchett’s imagination, and they seem to genuinely enjoy his work and to have discovered something new and different that they like.

Our play may be a success or a flop, as we say, but I consider this already a success of sorts.

Thanks, Serge, for joining us to talk about your play, Pratchett, Shakespeare, and everything else! Anyone who wants to know more about the performance in Fribourg can keep an eye on the official page at

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