Last night I went to the Opening Night of “Twelfth Night”, performed in Russian (with surtitles) by an all-male cast at the Sydney Festival. Although you may have needed to re-read that sentence, it’s all true. At the Sydney Festival Opening Night Party, I overheard a conversation in which one person – a journalist I think – described it as “challenging”.
And I’ll be the first to admit that I was also prepared for some challenging theatre, as it was a play I didn’t know in a language that I didn’t speak. If it had been Macbeth or Hamlet or one of the many other plays by Shakespeare, I would have at least had a working knowledge of the play. And although I didn’t have that working knowledge, aside from the brief precis which Colin outlined to me just before the play commenced, it probably didn’t matter because there were surtitles.
Ah yes, but there was a problem with the surtitle machine. The machine either flashed things too quickly (or too slowly) or was just plain innacurat. The machine reminded me of having speed reading lessons in primary school, as a projector flashed words on a screen at varying paces. At times during Twelfth Night, literally 15 or 20 words would flash on and off in under one second. At other times I had the feeling the play had been translated into Russian and then translated back into English with all of the quality issues you might associate with that.
After a while I stopped watching the surtitles, only occasionally glancing over. In hindsight the surtitle problem probably didn’t really matter at all, as the excellent direction – by Declan Donellan – and fine acting allowed the play to flow along without language being in any way a barrier to its enjoyment in a manner not disimilar to the enjoyment of opera lovers over hundreds of years before the introduction of surtitles.
In fact the play was an absolute joy to behold on so many levels. The direction was excellent. There was never an occasion where I thought the actors over or underplayed their roles and they always seemed at ease with the work. The comedic timing was excellent with the final words of the play garnering a huge belly-laugh from the audience. One of the other particular highlights was the incorporation of music played live on stage by the actors, often drawing upon 1930s-style tango-style arrangements. I found it to be genuinely exciting theatre to watch.
Although I noticed a fair number of people left at intermission, those who remained were given a terrific second half, giving the cast an enthusiastic round of applause at the end. I think the audience really appreciated the efforts the actors had clearly undertaken to make sure their work was understood by an audience which, largely speaking, didn’t speak Russian. My friend Colin also observed “they look like a nice group of blokes” and I think most of the audience agreed.