Watching theatre in a language that is not your own

Tonight I’m seeing a play in German. Before it even starts I’ve bought a programme for another performance in the same building because my German isn’t really up to this. But that’s OK, it’s only €1.50 and I’m interested in how different theatres put together their programmes. Anyway I’m early and need something to read. I have water too, but they’ll stop me taking my bottle in with me (#spoiler). It’s unreserved seating so I’ll find a quiet space at the back. After all, the last time I saw a performance by this writer – White Rabbit, Red Rabbit at Contact  – that was my worst ever date. Imagine seeing a show where you know the person sitting next to you is hating what they are seeing after two minutes. It didn’t end as well as I had hoped. I like the idea that I can be completely invisible in the auditorium, that my lack of knowledge of German will make me inconspicuous. I go to the front of the queue and choose the furthest seat from the stage.

So the show I am seeing is Nassim, which I could have seen last year at the Edinburgh Fringe but chose not to. The theatre is the Staatstheater Mainz in Southwest Germany, and it’s in the studio theatre called U17, because it’s seventeen metres underground. I forget whether I have claustrophobia. I am too worried that I’ll be asked to be part of the show. Last year in Aurillac I was called on stage to play the part of an errant man ‘Bernard’ in a street theatre skit that every French person would have known, but I didn’t. I think my ineptitude made it funny, but I’m still not quite sure. It took a long time to get the greasepaint moustache off me.

It is indeed a surreal experience. This is play about how we can better understand a culture (Iran) and a language (Farsi), but I am watching this in language I don’t really understand (German). Fortunately the structure of this play for the first half, like White Rabbit, is that a performer (Daniel Mutlu, really talented but unknown to me) takes the unseen script and reads the dialogue, this time from a powerpoint projection; I can understand written German.

In the second half of the play, the writer, Nassim Soleimanpour, actually appears on stage. This is a surprise, as I am still in White Rabbit world where he is under house arrest in Iran. At this point my German fails me and I am watching the interactions and the movements. Yet, it’s powerful theatre, and the interaction between performer and writer are perfectly choreographed. How is this concept translating into German? I wish I could see inside the heads of every member of the audience.

Four years ago I went to Oslo and watched a play called Verdilöse Menn in Norwegian. I understood none of the words, but the direction was so good that I can recount the full plot four years later by recalling the movement and the scenes. Sometimes when you let go of the language you are left with an emotion that you understand. I loved the way Norwegians embraced this world they saw on stage but did not understand in real life.

The greatest challenge for me was that to connect with Farsi I had to go through the German, which I struggled with. Yet, there was a beauty in the, well, the unknowingnesss. The deep desire to be part of this – in both German and Farsi – and yet sitting at the back of the auditorium I am miles away.

I saw Complicite’s The Encounter in Lausanne a couple of years ago, and remarkably I don’t remember whether this was performed in English or French. I have a feeling the first ten minutes were in French. The pre-show discussion was in French for sure. I get French. I do remember that when the audience applauded at the end they all clapped in time, which I have never seen anywhere else. I thought they might do this in Germany but they don’t.

Seeing theatre in a foreign language really makes you appreciate the direction and the structure of the play. I love physical theatre and mime and there are rarely any words, the story being told entirely through movement. That’s not to say language isn’t important. How can you understand subtext without a deep understanding of what is being said? Yet there is a such a joy in witnessing how different cultures approach theatre, and you only really see this when it’s done in the language of the country you’re in.



Theatre lover, amateur director, occasional actor, writer.

One Response to “Watching theatre in a language that is not your own”

  1. caroline clegg says:

    Thank you for this very thoughtful review Dave. I didn’t see it but it has really got me thinking about my own work. Thank you for continuing with your wonderful writing.

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