How To Make Plays In Foreign Languages Available To All Or Is This A Pipe Dream?
I was sitting expectantly in a theatre in Montreal to see Tom Na Fazenda (Tom A La Ferme or Tom At The Farm) by Michel Marc Bouchard (noted Québécois author), presented in Portuguese. I had been told by several people that this production was thrilling and its reception extraordinary. There were standing ovations after each show.
Directed by Rodrigo Porella, from Rio de Janeiro, this powerful play was a must see at Montreal’s fabulous Festival TransAmériques (May 23 to June 7, 2018). Even if my knowledge of Portuguese is non-existent, I told myself there would be supertitles in French and English so no worries.
The large stage was covered with a tarp smelling of gasoline. The program tells us that Francis, a farmer and his mother Agatha work their farm together in a remote rural area. Sitting in the front row, I immediately felt how hard their job is as they transport heavy buckets and bags across the stage. They have just learned the tragic news of the death of their brother and son. The funeral is about to take place. The mother lays out her son’s suit and shoes on the stage floor as if preparing for the ceremony. Suddenly Tom, a young man from the city, appears. Perhaps he has come to pay his respects but it seems that neither the mother nor the brother knows him.
As the first supertitles appear, I realize right away that I cannot read them. They are too light. I am frustrated. What are they saying? It seems important. Who is Tom? The mother greets him affectionately as if he were a good friend of her deceased son. Francis is clearly hostile but why is he shouting at him? What could be the problem? From time to time I glimpse some of the storyline when the stage becomes dark and I can read the supertitles, but these moments are few and far between.
I have had this experience several times before. My eyes have changed as I grow older and just like the experience of being partially blinded by the oncoming lights of a car when driving at night and the contours of oncoming cars are blurred, the experience is discomforting to say the least. I cannot be the only person with this problem. I remember a show at the Avignon Festival with the same situation and a man who was so annoyed by it that he was about to leave but decided instead to use his camera to better see the titles. I’m not sure how that worked for him but he didn’t leave.
Francis becomes increasingly violent with Tom. He roughly pushes him down and yells I don’t know what at him. The mother intervenes to protect Tom. Why? There is some discussion about the deceased son’s girlfriend Helen, I think, and the mother is wondering why she is not there for the funeral.
A knockdown drag-out battle ensues between Tom and Francis. The physical performance of these excellent actors is especially convincing. Their brutality is palpable; their bodies are covered with mud and sweat as they throw each other across the stage. It seems very possible that Francis, the stronger one, will kill Tom. However, it soon becomes clear from the physical language between them that Tom and Francis will become lovers. A moment of tenderness between them seals the deal and Tom will stay on the farm.
Just when I’m thinking that the play is about to end a young woman arrives speaking English. Her accent is quite strong but I am happy to hear my language and to learn more about the story of Tom the farmer. It seems that she has been persuaded to pretend that she is the deceased son’s girlfriend so that Agatha can be kept in the dark about her son’s homosexuality. Ultimately it is revealed that the mother has known all along that her son was gay and that the deceit and pretense were not only not necessary, but the lies told to her have caused her much grief.
I concluded that Tom Na Facenza is an excellent play that is beautifully directed and performed but I would have liked to appreciate the text and its significance beyond physical gestures. I felt deprived of this wonderful dimension. Clearly, the essence of this important play was missing.
It is interesting that the makers of supertitles don’t seem to be aware of this potentially unhappy situation. I have experienced it several times and have called attention to it but to no avail.
Another favorite show at the festival was La Nuit Des Taupes (The Night Of The Moles) by Philippe Quesne from France. A colony of giant moles (played by the Vivarium company members) lives in their underground burrow. They are making their way through life despite their blindness and slow, awkward movements. As the show opens, they arrive one by one through a tunnel they have dug, bringing large rocks with them into this confining space. There are seven of them, of all sizes and shape, each with a different personality but all of them have the same huge paws and tiny feet and they are quite endearing. They do not speak any recognizable language but their grunts clearly mean something to them. I assume that their elementary conversation is about the basic necessities of life and death. One of them has died and its body is lowered down into the burrow. The moles are clearly sad as well as confused as to what to do with their friend’s body.
There is no need for supertitles here. You can feel their sorrow at the loss of their friend as well as their determination to leave their narrow world to seek something bigger and better. With the help of pickaxes, they break into a wonderland of stalagmites, color, and music and are greeted by a large banner announcing “Welcome to Caveland.” This is a “brave new world” that affords them the freedom to enjoy themselves, eating, dancing, and swaying to a rock concert played by some of the moles who manage to produce convincing music on theremins and guitars despite their large paws.
I’m not saying that animals, however appealing they may be, are the answer to our eventual understanding of foreign theater, but these moles speak to us of resilience and courage and how to enjoy life. They were not content to remain buried in their narrow burrow with little to do but roll their rocks around. Another of Philippe Quesne’s plays (La Mélancolie Des Dragons) (The Melancholy Of Dragons) was a big hit at the Under the Radar festival in New York City in January 2018. For this delightful poetic show, Philippe had his actors learn enough English to present his play to American audiences. Their sometimes heavy accents only added to the evening’s pleasure.
Finally the fantastic Pourama Pourama, by Gurshad Shaheman, a French-Iranian poet and performer, offered potential audiences another challenge, a play in French with no supertitles. I wondered who would take advantage of this chance to attend a four and one half hour performance in a language they didn’t know. Pourama Pourama, written and performed by Gurshad, is a narrative in three parts about his coming-of-age in Iran and France. It offered hours of discovery and delight for those “happy few” (70 each night for just three nights) who managed to get tickets. I am fortunate in that I speak French, but I met a number of Americans who wished they could have seen the show but did not take a chance because they do not know French. They missed a remarkable evening that included a full dinner cooked and served by Gurshad himself as he continued his narrative.
This got me thinking about how this show could be presented in the United States. I spoke at some length with Gurshad about translating the play. He has come up with the proposal that we could translate it together and that he would perform it in English. It turns out he is fluent in English. The only problem is money, which of course is a major issue. Who would pay for the translation and who would produce this show?
I am excited about the implications of such a solution: no more straining to see the supertitles, no more missing the stage action to read what’s being said above the stage, no more stiff necks from which to recover the next day. Just the thrilling experience of direct communication with an artist from another country at last and a culturally enriching experience to add to our search for diversity and understanding of the world.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.