Translating, staging, and discussing Oyub

Alex Trustrum Thomas

OYUB is a documentary radio play, released as a podcast through TORCH Theatre and Performance Network at the University of Oxford. It contains an introduction by Professor Julie Curtis, who succinctly provides much of the background information needed to contextualise the play and sets the scene for what follows. Originally conceived as a rehearsed reading to be performed live, the COVID-19 lockdown in the U.K. at the end of March 2020 forced a reassessment of the means of fulfilling the project. Gathering together a diverse group of human rights and environmental activists from around the U.K. and Europe, who all subsequently recorded their parts of the script from their homes during the lockdown, the project was re-imagined as a “quarantine radio play”.

Man behind bars in a courtroom

This play is about Oyub Titiev, a human rights activist from Chechnya, who was arrested in 2018 and imprisoned on fabricated charges in order to silence him and put a stop to his work. One of the fortuitous outcomes of the otherwise difficult circumstances in which we were ultimately forced to produce this play was the parallel created between the quarantine lockdown of the human rights activists who agreed to take part, and Titiev’s own time spent in detention whilst waiting for the outcome of his trial and subsequently in prison. As such, the professional connection between the participants and the subject of the play took on additional contextual nuance.

The radio play is an experiment in non-hierarchical, collaborative production, in the sense that it was not directed, and the participants were all given a free hand to interpret the text in whatever way they felt appropriate. They were asked not to read the text in advance more than once, so as to maintain some of the rawness, and to avoid overfamiliarity that would lead to ‘acting’ the text. This presented numerous challenges in editing and mixing the different recordings together, and the result is far from seamless. Indeed, many of the stitches are audible, as are many of the natural idiosyncrasies of speech. We felt that it would be more interesting to leave these in place rather than to try to re-record multiple times, which could have achieved a more polished take, but at the expense of its vitality. Furthermore, the fact that every participant recorded themselves in different sonic environments (on a different device, in different sized rooms, with different furniture, etc.) meant weaving together voices that were fundamentally incompatible. Much of this has been compensated for by the soundtrack, and huge credit must go to the sound engineer, Josh Field, for making something coherent from the raw audio files that he was handed in early May. If this radio play is at all listenable then it is all thanks to him.

Perhaps the most pleasing outcome of this project is that it now exists in the world, and can be downloaded on iTunes or streamed on YouTube by anyone, anywhere in the world, at any time. This would not have been the case were it not for the lockdown, where the play would only have been seen by a handful of people, and I hope that the end result is a stronger, more urgent work than what it would have been otherwise. I translated this play from the original Russian in late 2019, not foreseeing the urgency and additional resonance it would acquire as a result of the extraordinary events of the first half of 2020. As almost every country in the world must now navigate its way out of authoritarian-style lockdowns to greater or lesser degrees, questions surrounding basic freedoms, human rights, and civil liberties are more pressing than ever. One of my favourite quotes from the play comes from Titiev himself in his courtroom speech before the handing down of his guilty verdict in March 2019: ‘With every passing year’, he says, ‘there are more and more restrictions, and less and less rights.’ Although Titiev said this in reference to the uniquely oppressive conditions of modern-day Chechnya, perhaps most unsettling of all is how his words seem to resonate with alarming pertinence far beyond the borders of this small republic in the North Caucasus. Titiev now works in Moscow, unable to return to his home to help people whose basic rights are being routinely violated by the regime there. This is cause for reflection and solidarity as we collectively negotiate the way forward post-lockdown.

One of the by-products of this project has been a bi-lingual online publication of the play script, using my translation of the text. This is available as a free e-book from Bookmate Originals, to read or download, in both English and Russian. There is much in the original text that unfortunately did not make the final cut of the radio play, so it is well worth a read in and of itself. There is a lot more I would like to say and many people I would like to thank, but at this point I should allow the radio play to speak for itself. I am grateful to the team at Creative Multilingualism for the confidence they showed in supporting this project initially, and for all their generous help and support along the way, without which it would not have come into existence.

Listen to the play on University of Oxford Podcasts >>

Download the play on iTunes>>

Alexander Thomas is a doctoral candidate at University College, Oxford.

Learn more about Creative Multilingualism's funded doctoral projects here>>