The Playgoer: Theatre as a Foreign Language

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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Theatre as a Foreign Language

Laura Barnett in the Guardian testifies to the occasional benefits of seeing theatre in a foreign language--i.e. a language you don't understand--and without simultaneous translation.

Because I wasn't focusing so much on the words, I was much more aware of the production as a whole – the white-box set, the dancers writhing away in the background – and of the actors' incredible physicality. In shifting my attention away from the language, the experience of watching the play became even more intense.

The same thing happened at the next show I saw: Bloed & Rozen (Blood and Roses), a new piece about Joan of Arc and her friendship with the bloodthirsty French nobleman Gilles de Rais, from the experimental Belgian director Guy Cassiers. It was two and a half hours long, and performed entirely in Flemish, with French surtitles. I had expected to be bored out of my mind, but was actually spellbound – again, because in freeing myself of the need to understand every word, I felt much more attuned to the show's entrancing use of film and music, and to the actors' every nuance of movement and expression.
I totally agree.  Some of the most formative experiences I've had at the theatre have been Ingmar Bergman's traveling productions with his Swedish company at BAM. When it was a classic play (usually Shakespeare or Ibsen) I would make a point of reviewing the text in advance so I was at least up on the plot and characters. Then I would forego the headphone translation, or spare myself the neck-twisting ardor of reading surtitles, and just sit back and take it all in. With a master director at work and a troupe of finely drilled actors, the real essence of the theatrical event is communicated visually, physically, and aurally.  For example, the sheer sound and expressiveness of great stage actors' voices. Unfair, perhaps, but I'm afraid no English-speaking actor playing Leontes in Winter's Tale will ever be able to move me as much as Börje Ahlstedt when, upon touching the wife he thought dead for years, he said, from the depth of his diaphragm, "She is warm." Hearing just the sound of that heartbreaking wonder in his voice, not the words, was a rare treat.

Another revelatory night was watching my only Russian-language Chekhov production, when the Sovremennik Co. came to Broadway(!) back in the 90s to do Three Sisters for a week. I know this sounds infantile to say, since I don't know any Russian, but listening to the play in its original tongue was! It had a totally different musicality that I was used to hearing in this play.  I realized how misleading so many of our uptight or flat-naturalistic translations are. Listening to the Sovermennik actors was like listening to opera.  Wow, I thought, Chekhov's characters are really, really expressive!

Basically it's the best way to see a director at work, for all the reasons Barnett describes above. You really start noticing the variety of tools of stage expression beyond (not instead of ) the spoken text. Which is why it should be mandatory for all aspiring directors to make foreign-language productions required viewing when possible. Perhaps directing one or two would be a cool exercise as well.

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