Caro Meets Theatre Interview

John Farndon: The Trumpeter

By | Published on Friday 5 July 2024

In the last couple of years, it’s been in many ways heartening – though equally, heartbreaking – to see creative work emerging from Ukraine despite – and inspired by – the events the country has suffered since Russia invaded in 2022. 

Someone who has been very involved with bringing some of that work to English speaking audiences is writer John Farndon, who has translated a large number of new plays. One play that he has worked on, ‘The Trumpeter’ by Ukrainian playwright Inna Goncharova, begins a run at the Finborough Theatre this week. 

I spoke to John to find out more about the play, the playwright and John himself. 

CM: Can you start by telling us what ‘The Trumpeter’ is all about? Where is it set and whose story does it tell?
JF: It’s set both nowhere and somewhere very specific – and that’s inside the vast, dark bomb shelters under the Azovstal steel works in Mariupol in the spring of 2022. It’s here that a small band of Ukrainian soldiers endured for 80 days against all the odds under a relentless bombardment from the invading Russians. 

The play is about the last survivor of the brigade’s band, the trumpeter. He’s been forced into fighting, yet sees himself as a creator, a writer of music. He wants to write a symphony of war, but his ears are filled with the din of Russian missiles. 

But the play is not just about a young soldier, it is about all of us – as we face extremes, as our very humanity and purpose in living is challenged. That’s all brought into focus by the startling performance of Kristin Milward, who is both the voice of the young trumpeter and his closest comrades in this hell-hole.

CM: What themes are explored through the play?
JF: One day in spring 2022, the playwright Inna Goncharova saw a TikTok post from inside the Azovstal siege saying, “everyone is fighting, including the musicians of the band”.

That simple post triggered ideas about polar opposites of humanity – music’s creation and war’s destruction – and inspired Inna’s play. On the surface, it’s about the horror and the heroism of this real-life situation in the Azovstal siege – about how one deals with the suffering and broken lives, as you see comrades maimed or die around you. 

But it is also an incredibly powerful hymn to the human will to create, to live and to love in the face of the worst horror. Amidst the dreadful cacophony of the war, ‘The Trumpeter’ searches for, and finds, harmony. It may be set in the grimmest place but it is extraordinarily uplifting.

CM: How did you come to be working on this play?
JF: When the Russians invaded in 2022, Ukrainian dramatists didn’t lie down; they started writing furiously and brilliantly.

They wanted the world to witness and understand what was going on, beyond the headlines. They wanted to share their experiences. They wanted the world to feel, as they did, the richness of the Ukrainian culture that Putin wanted to destroy.

And Maksym Kurochkin of Kyiv’s Theatre Of Playwrights and American drama critic John Freedman joined forces to get these powerful and urgent new works of drama heard around the world. And that meant translation, especially into English. 

There weren’t so many translators of Ukrainian drama ready to do this at the drop of a hat, but I was. It mattered. Between us, John Freedman and I have now translated well over 100 new Ukrainian plays and seen over 500 readings and scores of productions globally – not to mention translations into other languages.

And the work has been amazing, blowing away those who have seen it, like Neda Nejdana’s ‘Pussycat In Memory Of Darkness’, which played at the Finborough two years ago to brilliant reviews. ‘The Trumpeter’ was one of the plays I got sent and it is such a powerful piece.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about what it’s like to translate a piece of theatre? How do you go about it?
JF: Translating plays is not like other literary translation. You translate plays not to be read, but to be performed on stage. So right from the start you’ve got to have a picture of the playwright’s vision for the stage.

How it will work in the theatre. Is it naturalistic or absurd? Is it still and reflective or bursting with fast-paced action? You need to keep this in mind all the time. You’re not translating literature, but a working script. Your aim is to provide a clear platform for theatremakers to create the play on stage.

That means you can rarely translate just ‘literally’, even as you strive for accuracy. You have to find the right rhythms, the right pacing. The high tension moments and the pauses.

The wrong length or choice of phrase can kill a key moment of drama stone dead. And you have to find the forms of expression that help the actor speak and become the character in each vivid moment.

CM: Have you been involved in the production beyond the creation of the script? Are you able to tell us a bit about the cast and creative team?
JF: Oh yes, I’ve been deeply involved! Up to my eyes. After the extraordinarily powerful responses to performances of ‘The Trumpeter’ in Germany, we just knew we had to perform it in London – yet here we had no one to produce it and no budget.

That’s where I came in, pulling it all together, as best I could, and adding a string of extra events after most performances of the play, thanks to the extraordinary generosity of an array of talented people, both Ukrainians and from the UK! 

Our creative team is tiny – really just actress Kristin Milward and director Vladimir Scherban. But wow, what a partnership. In some ways they are complete opposites. Kristin is a wonderful actress whose approach to acting is highly charged and emotional. Vladimir, who grew up in Belarus, is a legendary director and a deeply analytic visionary.

Sparks flew in rehearsals, but they brought out the best in each other, to create something that none of us could have imagined.

CM: Can you tell us a bit more about playwright Inna Gonchorova?
JF: Inna Goncharova lives in Kyiv and has stayed there, continuing to work creatively as hard as ever, despite the continuous attacks.

She has long been one of the key figures of Ukrainian theatre, not just the writer of more than half a dozen plays, but a leading director of numerous acclaimed productions and the driving force behind the formation of many innovative theatre companies.

But she is also a wonderfully warm human being with a great sense of humour whose aim in writing ‘The Trumpeter’ was to bring warmth and joy into the world from the horror.

CM: And can you tell us a bit about you? Did you always want to be a writer? How did your career begin?
JF: Well, that’s a long story… A long time ago, I was working for a community theatre company bringing work to deprived areas of Sheffield and Rotherham. Funding dried up, but I heard of a short term job working for a partwork publishing company, writing about motor bikes. Ironically, despite having never ridden, I became an expert on bike technology! 

Finding that I could write on just about anything launched me into writing non-fiction books – and it was such a thrill to spread knowledge – on subjects as diverse as ancient history and geology, to the politics of Iran and the climate crisis.

I’ve written about 1200 books now. But I do love theatre still, and some time ago I wrote plays which appeared at places such as the Donmar Warehouse and Almeida. 

But recently I’ve been spending a great deal of time translating, especially, in the last two years, from Ukrainian and Belarusian – because the need is so urgent! I also write poetry, because it’s a whole lot quicker than writing plays and you can perform them yourself. And I write songs…

CM: So, you do a number of different jobs – some very different kinds of writing as well as translating – is there one thing that you enjoy more than the others?
JF: Yes, I do rather, don’t I? But next to writing, I love bringing musicians and poets and other artists together for informal gatherings. It is so wonderful when artists simply share work for the sheer pleasure of it, and realise they are not alone.

So over the years, besides higher profile events, I’ve been hosting gatherings in cosy venues – and the cosiest of all, my own home. The warmth and joy of these events is very special.

CM: What would you say have been the highlights of your working life thus far?
JF: Ha, that’s a difficult question, because I don’t look back that often. It’s what I’m doing now that always excites me most.

I know the press night for ‘The Trumpeter’ is going to be amazing, when Kristin finishes her performance to tears and cheers, and that is followed by the beautiful poetry of Kateryna Babkina, and the stunning bandura music and voice of young Ukrainian Mariia Petrovska. 

But in the past? One of the best public moments was winning the European Bank RD Literary Prize in 2019 for my translation of the poetry in Uzbek author Hamid Ismailov’s ‘The Devil’s Dance’.

But equally special was getting a huge crowd at Marble Arch to join in with me reciting my long poem ‘The Silence Ends’ about the unheard voices of refugees, the loss of species and the damage done by climate chaos. 

But recent events have brought me into contact with many wonderful people from Ukraine and Belarus, and although the circumstances are dire, the many new friendships and the many joint events we have done together have been both powerful and full of love.

CM: What aims do you have for the future?
JF: To keep on working to make the world a better place, to bring people together, to help end conflict, to look for the joy and beauty in the world, to alert people to the dangers I see, to support the vulnerable. And that means writing more – poetry and books. Creating more gatherings. Bringing my friends closer.

Just recently, I lost my partner of the last decade, my special little dog Muffin. I used to take him everywhere and it was like having a pocket full of sunshine with me. He brought so much joy and love. I want to remember that feeling and carry it forward with interest.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
JF: Well immediately after this production, by coincidence, I’ve got another Ukrainian play translation coming up at the Finborough, ‘Diary Of A Ukrainian Madman’ by Luda Tymoshenko.

It’s a brilliant black comedy inspired by Gogol’s ‘Diary Of A Madman’. I can’t wait to see what the terrific Stepping Out company do with it. Oh, and I might have a few days off…

‘The Trumpeter’ is on at the Finborough Theatre from 9 Jul to 3 Aug. For more information and to book tickets head to the venue website here.

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