Lost In A Good Play
April 14, 2009
One reason why art forms such as visual art and dance travel more easily than theatre, books and film is to do with the language barrier. Art that isn't tied to a particular vernacular isn't as apt to sacrifice its power and meaning in the same way as it might if it relies heavily on words for communication. This is one of the reasons why there are so many more globe-trotting exhibitions of paintings and sculpture than there are untranslated, traveling productions of plays.
What I've discovered over my years of theatre-going -- perhaps the last word-oriented artform served up without the benefit of dubbing, sub-titles or sur-titles as is the case with movies and opera -- is that even if you can't understand most or any of what's being said on stage, you can still get a lot out of a theatre production.
The feeling of foreignness can often be a thematic feature of a show, such as in the case of Tim Supple's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. This production rendered Shakespeare almost unintelligible to some theatre-goers owing to its use of many Indian languages in place of the Bard's already-foreign-sounding Renaissance English. To others (myself included) the language barrier created a new, voluptuously poetic world. The production was able to tour the world because the language barrier was part of the fabric of the piece. Paradoxically, unintelligibility was absolutely integral to our understanding of the play.
But what about the experience of seeing a play in a foreign tongue which was never created with such a conceit in mind? This can also be a formidable experience, albeit a daunting one.
Certainly, seeing productions of plays written in a language you don't understand takes a bit of practice. When I lived in Moscow and St. Petersburg for a few months ten years ago, I went to see productions in Russian almost every night. My command of the language was extremely basic. I could ask for directions, hail a cab, count to 100, order food and a few other things. But I was ill-equipped to understand the words being spoken on stage most of the time. Still, after a while, I kind of got used to -- and even started to revel in -- my linguistic shortcomings. I dealt with the issue by boning up on what it was that I was about to see in advance so at least I had a basic idea of the plot and characters. I opened myself up to experiencing plays in a new way. I tried to relax.
This feeling of letting go came back to me acutely last week when I caught Thomas Ostermeier's production of Hedda Gabler at Berlin's Schaubuhne. Having seen the play produced on several occasions in the past, I at least had a handle on the basics. What was interesting about this production for someone who's German isn't exactly fluent (though it's better than my Russian) is how unforeign it feels.
Ostermeier's Hedda is very much a modern adaptation of Ibsen's play. Even with my limited understanding of the nuances of German, I still heard references to computer technology in the text. I found myself completely drawn into Ostermeier's contemporary world of glossy oppressiveness. And because I couldn't always focus on the language, I found myself -- as is usual when I attend plays in languages I don't know -- putting my focus more strongly on other elements of the staging, such as the actors' physicality, the blocking and the visual design.
The set, in particular, is extraordinary. It's like a character in the play. Depicting the living room and outdoor deck of the home of the Tesmans, it's a study in airy and transparent spaciousness. It looks like an "ideal living" photo spread in an architectural or design magazine like Metropolis or Dwell. I usually hate sets that revolve constantly between scenes, but the giant, precariously angled mirror reflecting the world below on stage and the glass wall separating the outdoor space from the indoor space work together with the icy lights to create a world of infinite reflection as the set circles around. Even though the characters can't see each other through walls, we are able to see almost everything owing to the revolutions of the set and the mirror. We get to see the story from every angle. We are voyeurs.
And yet, partly owing to Ostermeier's decision to stage the entire play without an intermission, the entire thing feels so claustrophobic and relentless that by the end we feel cornered and like we can't penetrate the world on stage at all. We want to point a finger at the play's conclusion -- blame Hedda or Tesman or Brack for the mess. But we find ourselves completely lost for words. It's rather like modern life really. Powerful stuff. Not bad for a night out at the theatre when your German amounts to little more than sentences about kaffee und kuchen.
Now here's an interesting question: If I had perfect command of the German language, would I get more out of the experience of seeing the play? Or would the experience simply be different?