by guest critic Steven Strauss
So there used to be this movie theater in New York City that always made me laugh by insisting on including subtitles over movies IN ENGLISH, albeit those with heavy accents. Let’s just say that this multiplex’s average clientele was of a certain age, and their diminished hearing required some help in understanding strong dialects of any kind from every corner of the world.
To be clear, I jested these geriatrics out of pure love, because without their support, theater — both of the movie and live variety — could not exist. But if the powers-that-be upstairs confused my lighthearted, celebratory chiding with ageist scorn, then my reaction to Tara Finney Productions’ 20th Anniversary revival of Enda Walsh’s first play Disco Pigs — which premiered at Trafalgar Studios in 2017 before transferring to New York City’s Irish Rep — can be seen as a form of karmic retribution.
Because I spent a majority of its duration desperately in need of onstage supertitles.
Don’t get me wrong: My problems with a lot of the language didn’t obscure Walsh’s deft hand with the written word. He captures the thrilling confusion inherent in lifelong friends falling in love; since romance customarily entails leaving the nest, how do we react when we catch feels not only closer to home, but for a person that represents one’s childhood? Evanna Lynch and Colin Campbell — the two actors entrusted to shoulder this two-hander — plus director John Haidar fill the 75 minutes with the necessary amount of overflowing, uncontrolled youthful kinetic vitality.
And yet, due to Walsh’s signature, rapid-fire verbosity, it was hard to fully engage with a play and production without understanding the primary mode of communication. A part of this confusion was probably intentional; the central couple concoct new words to illustrate their distinct connection in the same way as the droogs in A Clockwork Orange, a sign of their fiercely individualistic rebellious natures that demonstrates their cynical detachment from the square world around them. But as for the rest, I kept finding myself wishing I could follow along on the page.
The solution is not as easy as Irish Rep simply projecting supertitles onto Richard Kent’s set. Since directors and designs spend hours laboring over perfecting each and every stage image in a given production, local producers can’t just alter their work without the creators’ consent. Since smart theatrical practitioners over the years have put a lot of thought into how to incorporate projected subtitles into their dramatic landscapes, Haidar and co. would’ve needed to spend time brainstorming the best way to ensure that all audiences can sufficiently follow along. More productions that transfer from the British Isle to the Island of Manhattan (and elsewhere) should consider subtitles…or at the very least offer a few performances for us dialect-challenged folk.
Thinking about this dilemma reminds me of the Public Theater’s recent production of Measure for Measure here in New York City, courtesy of the acclaimed experimental theatre group Elevator Repair Service (famous for Gatz in London, in which the cast literally performed the entirety of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby text). None of its actors memorized their lines. Instead, the entire script was provided by autocue, and they’d read the words according to a cue that dictated, and constantly changed, the pace of their line deliveries.
Truthfully, the revival was unsuccessful. You can read more about why here, but in short: The approach rather brilliantly drew thematic parallels between the characters’ obedience to the letter of the law and the reverent sanctity that many theatre scholars and practitioners shower upon Shakespeare’s texts. ERS used these ideas to justify the farcical antics in their interpretation, but watching actors reading is a tough hurdle to overcome in terms of remaining interested in a play for two hours, especially for newcomers who just want to experience Measure for Measure for the first time instead of dealing with quasi-esoteric — though still accessible, thanks to the un-stuffy comedic farce — scholarly commentary.
But returning to my Disco Pigs problem, perhaps the Public’s Measure for Measure simply pointed the supertitles at the wrong portion of the theatre? What if, for SOME Shakespeare performances, the audience was able to read the text as it’s brought to life by dynamic actors? Reading Shakespeare’s words alone may not solve many modern audiences’ difficulties with his archaic Elizabethan dramatic language, in the same way transcendent acting doesn’t always make Shakespeare as comprehensible as modern English. But combining the two could lower the language barrier that scares away many audiences less experienced with the Bard, opening up his words — in addition to those by writers from around the world — to as many people as possible.
Disco Pigs ran through 4 March 2018.
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