by Javier Arevalo-Rendall
The obvious difference between London and Buenos Aires is the language. The buildings are similar in style and they gaze down on you in similar ways.
The cool, trendy people that live in London’s Portobello are akin to those living in Palermo. There are moods, streets, and times of the day that trick the mind and tempt you to say, “I’m in Buenos Aires now.”
Argentine actress Elena Roger, who recently returned to Argentina after living in London for three years, knows all about this. Already a successful actress, Roger moved to London in 2006 to star in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s play Evita. While there she fought hard to learn English and conquer the world of theatre. She recently received what most critics consider the English theatre establishment’s highest accolade: she won the Lawrence Olivier award for her starring role in Piaf in London’s West End.
Newspapers and magazines throughout Argentina told the story of how she got the award. They talked about how she was born in the Buenos Aires suburb of Barracas some thirty-odd years ago, and about how she has now returned to Buenos Aires, triumphant, to play the role of the great French singer Édith Piaf – otherwise known as the “Little Sparrow” – here on the legendary, theatre-lined calle Corrientes.
But the local papers said little about Roger’s struggle to adapt in a new country and master a new language. This is her story, as told in an interview before her trip back to Buenos Aires.
The Argentine Post: Tell us about your relationship with the English language. You arrived in London about three years ago and now you’ve mastered it. How were the first weeks in London?
Elena Roger: It was tough, it was a real fight. I don’t know, I guess I can’t really say I’ve mastered the language as such; I speak it… mas o menos. I still say “turn on” when I mean “turn down” and things of the sort. I started to learn English in Baires, in my teenage years. But around the time I was 18, I simply stopped going to the language school, and for more than ten years I didn’t use it on a day-to-day basis. And well, it disappeared. Apart from that, I had never used it at the level that I use it now; speaking it, listening to the language, polishing it in general was something that I needed desperately.
And so it was that la Roger arrived in London, knowing she would have to toughen up and take on English as it is spoken in the streets. In Argentina, when you first encounter the English language it’s typically in a classroom, and the teachers only have one accent, which is always comfortingly familiar. With a bit of luck, you might have the odd British, American or Australian teacher, but of course they’re mostly gauchos. You always rely on your Spanish to make yourself understood.
TAP: So how were your first months in London?
ER: Well, they were very challenging, but at the same time extremely gratifying. It was 2006 and I found myself on the other side of the world playing ‘Evita’ for the first time. I originally only came over for an interview with Andrew Lloyd-Webber, and realising that I’d been chosen for the main role was just mind-blowing. And then of course there’s the fact that the character I was playing had major significance for me as an Argentine. One grows up learning about Evita, so having the chance to portray her on a major stage was immensely gratifying. Also the audiences and the critics liked it, so all in all it was a very happy experience.
TAP: And today? What have you found challenging about living in London?
ER: Obviously the distance. Having friends and family so far can be difficult at times, but that’s something that happens to all of us, I guess. Now, on a more practical level, I would say that I’m still a bit overwhelmed by the huge variety of accents that you hear around you. Some are wonderfully crisp and clear, but others … mamma mia! There are days when I feel I speak no English at all!
In Argentina accents are never a problem, of course, at least not for native Spanish speakers. Even though you’re well aware of their existence to the native-speaker’s ears (the way the cordobeses sing or the shos that constitute the essence of Buenos Aires speech), accents do nothing but embellish and give colour to the Spanish language.
Roger wasn’t daunted by the challenge, but in the heat of the battle, her mother tongue did suffer. In Spanish, Elena Roger doesn’t descansa, she takes breaks, in English.
Roger and I met for coffee in a place called “Canela,” Spanish for cinnamon. But when the cinnamon stick arrived, garnishing our cappuccinos, there was a certain air of confusion. I lifted it, waved it at Elena and asked her: “Don’t you feel like this is cinnamon and not canela? Don’t you feel like you’re forgetting your Spanish?”
ER: I am forgetting it indeed … and my English was never quite with me anyway. Sometimes I ask myself: ‘What language do I speak?’ I certainly speak English; I make myself understood, I understand them when they speak … but it isn’t mine. I want to explain something and I just don’t have the words. There are certain codes, unspoken rules that I ignore. If I wink at somebody in Argentina everything’s alright; I know they’ll understand what I mean. I might not have the words in Spanish, but there are a thousand other things I do have at my disposal to convey what I want to say! Now of course that very same wink may mean something very different over here.
TAP: And other times there are words that you first encounter in English but when you want to express the same thing in Spanish you’re in trouble…
ER: Of course! Sometimes you keep repeating words with the hope of finding a translation and you don’t find anything. Once an interviewer here in London taught me the word “challenge.” So I very happily started to use it, even in Spanish. How on earth do you say “challenge” in Spanish? I didn’t have the foggiest idea! After a few weeks I called my mum, and after exchanging definitions and interpretations we agreed on “desafio.”
TAP: Would you say that playing Piaf was a ‘desafio’?
ER: God yes! A major one. It was absolutely wonderful, a beautifully strong play, but it was terribly demanding.
TAP: Why did you decide to do Piaf? What attracted you to the role?
ER: I think it was the fact that Edith Piaf was such a strong, passionate character …
TAP: Rather like Evita …
ER: Indeed, like Evita.
TAP: Do you identify with these women in any way?
ER: Well, I wouldn’t go as far as saying “identify”. They were both such strong, influential people that comparing myself with them wouldn’t seem fair. But there are some aspects of their personalities that I do share, certainly. They were passionate, independent women who got what they wanted as a result of talent and hard work, by not giving up. Now, something I found interesting – after I signed up – was the fact that Elaine Page had first played Evita here in London and then moved on to do Piaf.
TAP: And how did you prepare yourself to become the Little Sparrow?
ER: It was an arduous process. Hugely rewarding, but also very demanding. The play wasn’t entirely original; Pam Gem had written it and it opened here in London in 1978. But the creative team thought that the script needed some changes, and after it was decided that I would be the one playing Piaf, the director – Jamie Lloyd – met Pam Gem and re-wrote a huge chunk of it. The final version ended up being shorter, but there are certain things that we added to make the character rounder; the Résistance years weren’t in the original version, or example.
Then there was the language! I spoke no French at all, so first I went to Paris for a few weeks to immerse myself in the language. And then, back in London, I had a wonderful private teacher who helped me with the pronunciation, the intonation, etc. The whole thing had to be done very well and very carefully because I didn’t just have to speak in French – most of the speaking role is in English – but I had to sing in it! I also did the usual work that you do when you play somebody else: you study the subject and try to understand it. If you want to portray a person accurately, you have to understand them first! And finally there was quite a bit of physical training. The play is not long, but it’s very intense and you have to be fit enough to be able to do it six times a week.
TAP: Well, judging from the response that the production got, I think it’s fair to say you pulled it off.
ER: [laughs] Yes! I never thought I wouldn’t be able to do it, but the response we got from the people and the critics was just wonderful. There were loads of French people who approached me and said to me: “It was magnificent, it felt like listening to Edith again….” That’s the best thing anyone could possibly say to you!
Despite claims to the contrary, Elena Roger never uttered the sentence “I’m a petit woman, but I’ve got a great voice.” And no, she doesn’t think the phrase would look great as a title of an autobiography or a new musical.
ER: Oh, someone else must have said that! These are things that other people have told me. Many times people have said “How is it be possible that such a great voice fits into such a small body?” But it has never been more than that.
TAP: Tell me about London. What emotions does it stir in you?
ER: “Well, I love its buzz, the fact that it’s so utterly vibrant. There’s art on every corner, and since there’s more money going around the artistic productions are rather fancier. There’s one thing that I’m particularly enjoying at the moment, and it’s the sense of discovery and fulfilment that the English language is giving me. I go to the theatre, and not only do I understand the content, but I see how the actors savour the words, enjoy them. British English always sounded more appealing to me, and it’s a real pleasure to enjoy it the way I do now.
TAP: And if you had to choose a European city to settle down, which one would you choose?
ER: London … or Madrid.
TAP: And in the world?
ER: In my mind there’s always the idea of settling down in Baires, either in the city itself or in the suburbs. I love travelling, but home is home. Anyway, being here for three years opened up my mind. Before, the idea of living abroad just didn’t interest me. I always thought ‘As long as I can live here in my city, I’ll stay.’ But now that life has torn me out of Baires and brought me here, I think ‘Hey, it’s not so bad to live abroad.’ I don’t feel like I’m from here or there, but being a citizen of the world is not a bad thing, after all.
TAP: And sometimes it happens that one idealises, doesn’t it? We’re here, surrounded by the cold and the rain and we dream of the sun, the friends, the asados… But when we step off the plane at Ezeiza and the bubble bursts we start yearning for the tea, the pristine parks, the sense of order and respect for each other’s space.
ER: Yeah, you feel weird here, weird over there. There are things that you never really agree on. I always say: ‘I don’t live in London, I work in London’ It would be extremely difficult to live here without a job. If I had to live like that, I’d rather go back home and live with my family in Baires. I know that I would at least have my loved ones around me. That’s what I look for in life, at least on a personal level.
After the last drops of coffee, after the bill, the greetings and promises for future cups and glasses, Elena left. Wrapped in a trendy dress and carrying a bag that wasn’t old but vintage, she got lost in the crowd. She looked very trendy, very cool. Very Palermo and very Portobello, she started to become a part, once again, of the multi-coloured jigsaw puzzle that is London.
And now, after having conquered London, she’s returned home. Piaf opens July 15 in Buenos Aires.
*Born in Argentina, Javier Arevalo-Rendall is a freelance writer living in London. He writes for the newspaper Critica de la Argentina, as well as for the literary magazines Miranda, Sismotrapisonda, and La Otra, among others. He also blogs at: www.javoarevalo.wordpress.com