Friday, 12 November 2010

Shakespeare Untranslated: To See, or Not to See?

To be, or not to be? To see, or not see a Shakespeare play in a foreign language? Now, that really is the question.

When travelling in a country with a different language from your own, a lot of its culture is still open to you.

Music and dance are no problem, opera is OK, and films might have subtitles. However, theatre is a problem, so reliant it is upon language.

But I love theatre, so I've always been keen to see it when travelling, if I can.

A few years ago, I hit on a solution to the language barrier - choose a Shakespeare play you're familiar with that's being performed in a foreign language, so at least you know the plot.

That frees you to focus on the acting, intonation, costumes, set design, direction and other elements without feeling bemused by the storyline. And if you know a little of the local language, you can still pick up something of what's being said.

Here's some of the foreign-language Shakespeare I've caught over the years:

The Merchant of Venice in Japanese

I caught this production in 2001 at The Other Place, which was then a secondary venue used by the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon, UK, the Bard's hometown. To be precise, it was a Japanese production with a Romanian director, staged by the Euro-Japan Theatre Organisation.

It was great - the costumes were particularly memorable, an eye-catching mix of traditional and modern (eg Lorenzo in Japanese robes with a biker's jacket on top). 

Antony and Cleopatra in Italian

Well, it's a perfect fit, isn't it? Saw this in 2001 in a magnificent horseshoe-shaped old theatre in Rome - the sort of place you imagine opera being performed. It was done in a striking modern style on a candlelit stage - the men in Zegna suits, the women in classy black dresses.

The Tempest in Lithuanian


When I saw the poster for Burza in the Polish city of Toruń, with Shakespeare's name attached, I was puzzled as to which play it was. A look at my Polish dictionary produced the translation "storm" - of course, it's The Tempest! It was being staged in 2008 as part of the city's annual Kontakt festival (see the cool poster above). Kontakt started in 1991, and primarily aims to bring together great theatre work from Western and Eastern Europe.

To aid comprehension, patrons hired little radio-pickup boxes with headphones, which played live translation of the Lithuanian delivery into Polish, Russian and English. I did occasionally dip into the Russian, just because it sounded so portentous.

A Midsummer Night's Dream in Polish

All that time in Poland, and I finally got to see a Shakespeare work in Polish in 2007, courtesy of the much-respected Stary Teatr. It was magnificent. Working from a fresh translation (a luxury we English-speakers don't have), the company produced an edgy work in upmarket contemporary costumes and settings, laced with black humour.

The company managed the impressive feat of turning Shakespeare's famous comedy into something dark and uncomfortable. The scene directly after the four lovers are released from their magical enchantments was pricelessly awkward, and reminded the viewer that the characters had just been drugged and psychologically manipulated in the most humiliating way. Not really a laughing matter, when you think about it. 

There was also a nod to the original text - of the Rude Mechanicals, Snug (the one who plays the lion) could only speak in English. So we did get to hear some of Shakespeare's text, along with his attempt at a roar. That was fun.