What happens when you watch a play in a language you don’t understand? While you may initially wish that the dialogue consists of directions to the swimming pool and other familiar snippets from your GCSEs, it quickly becomes clear that theatre relies as much on action as it does on words. The old nugget about two thirds of all communication being non-verbal seems to be validated here, as many of the sight gags are as funny to the French-speaking crowd as to the mono-linguists who are following the scene-by-scene synopses that flash overhead.
There are moments though where it’s obvious that non-French speakers are missing out on linguistic nuance, when a tiny, un-signposted remark has the crowd in uproarious laughter. This must be what it feels like to suddenly go deaf at a comedy club.
This said, if you know the play well enough you can ‘get’ a better sense of things by listening out for specific lines. Béatrice’s closing remark at the end of her verbal jousting with Benedict, “I know you of old,” could be justifiably delivered with bitter scorn, or muted anger, but here it is offered with merry insouciance, defining her character as not quite dried-up and weary, and therefore making her eventual change of heart perfectly convincing. That sense of buoyancy is carried through to other aspects of the production: Hero and Margaret’s deliberately overheard teasing, for example, reaches a sexually unambiguous climax, (going much further than Shakespeare did) for which no translation is required.
The success of any production of Much Ado About Nothing depends on the spark between Béatrice and Benedict and even the pouring rain can’t dampen the combustible pair from Compagnie Hypermobile. Béatrice (Alix Poisson) is a zany, uncontrollable force, lampooning her elders with elasticated vocal exaggerations and flitting about the stage like a new-born bat. Benedict (Bruno Blairet) worships at the temple of his own narcissism and his preposterous goatee points ever heavenward.
Director Clément Poirée provides physical clues from which characterisation can emerge. Béatrice’s hair and costume are tightly bound before she can acknowledge her feelings for Benedict, at which point she lets her hair down and unfastens her heart at the same time. Benedict, on the on the hand, has an initially outlandish appearance, which acts as his emotional armour until he is captured – at which point he shaves the beard, and ditches the purple kilt.
Claudio (Laurent Menoret) and Hero (Suzanne Aubert) are Much Ado’s other conflicted lovers, and thoughtful casting make this odd couple oddly captivating. Claudio’s ‘ex-hardman’ looks (shaved head, handlebar moustache and crushed-spider eyes) contrast with his tender outpourings of song, while his lover Hero’s mirrored set of opposites- frail, petite frame coupled with raw and gutsy outbursts make for an endearing pair.
Of course Shakespeare’s gold is his language and it seems strange to strip him of it; the question here is whether there is something to be gained in translation? The plays contain poetry, but they are not poems, they are plays. What this season proves is that the essence of the play remains. Ancient Greek ruins may contain little of their true splendour with vital details and colours lost to time, but even a whitewashed, stripped back structure can be a beautiful monument in its own right.