A few years ago at the Edinburgh Fringe, we caught wind that Eddie Izzard was doing a secret gig in our venue. Our designer managed to get hold of a handful of tickets, and we all squeezed into the tiny portacabin on the Pleasance Courtyard, giddy with anticipation.
The fact that Eddie would be doing the set in French had apparently passed all of us by. Maybe nobody bothered to mention it, or maybe we didn’t hear when they told us, or maybe nobody cared because we were about to watch Eddie-Death-Star-Canteen-Izzard in an eighty seater.
Apart from my friend John, who laughed like a Shakespeare academic at The Merry Wives of Windsor, none of us could speak French. But it didn’t actually matter. There’s a rhythm to comedy that transcends language. Especially when you are watching a performer of the calibre of Eddie Izzard. His body language and physicality instinctively had us in hysterics. His tone, cadence, and emphasis indicated to us when to laugh at the jokes. And when we weren’t sure, we just laughed when John laughed.
I think the same is true of watching a play in a foreign language. Simon Stephens has said that when he attends foreign language productions of his own work, he can tell if they are transmitting the sense he intended – even in a language he doesn’t understand. Regardless of whether you think that matters, there is meaning in inflexion, and tension, and proximity. We understand stories through observing the performers in relation to one another and the imagined context they transmit to us, as much as we do though the text.
When it comes to Greek tragedy, this level of engagement is critical. The words are often so functional that it demands any production draw out the deeper meaning that lies inside the text, and reveal it to the audience without stating it explicitly – through inflexion, tension, and proximity. That’s hard. Especially when the text is as expositional as those Greek play so often are.
The Flies by Exchange Theatre has been adapted and translated but it still has all the hallmarks of an ancient story. There’s a sort of neutrality in the way they are written. Its as if the weight of millennia has compacted them like diamonds. They have been condensed to their purest form without the texture and superficiality of the contemporary to fall back on. There’s no jokes in most of them, no wit, it’s mostly just history and information.
The Flies is an anniversary production for Exchange Theatre. They regard it as the play that put them on the map of British theatre a decade ago, and it’s a huge achievement that they are still producing work today, and even boast their own rehearsal space in London Bridge. Like many of their productions, The Flies will be performed in both English and French alternately. This is their USP as a company, and they pride themselves on being multi-lingual, pro-European theatre makers in London. But I wonder if it is this focus on language, translation, and literal meaning that has meant the company has overlooked what lies beneath.
The Flies is Jean Paul Sartre’s take on The Oresteia, written during the occupation of France in the second world war. The town of Argos has been in a perpetual state of remorse since their leader Agamemnon was murdered, and they did nothing to help. Swarms of flies have been sent by the Gods ever since, to pester and nag them indefinitely as a punishment for their inaction.
From the outset in this production, there’s no real sense of that lead heavy shame which sits on the town before Orestes returns to free them. Or even that buzzing, flitting irritation which you just can’t swat. Apart from what is stated in the text, the company doesn’t succeed in making the town’s collective repentance manifest. We never get to feel the sensation of gnawing guilt, or smell the odour of decomposing flesh, or taste the atmosphere of rot which is remarked on in the translation.
Even once they are in English, you still have to translate what’s at the heart of these old stories into something tangible and real, if they are to be understood onstage. The inflexion, the tension, and the shift in dynamic between characters has to be palpable, even if you can’t understand the language.
The scenes in this production are long and shapeless. At times there is so much text spoken, that its hard to know what is significant and what isn’t. This means that despite the onstage garage rock band, there is no sense of a rhythm accumulating towards a climax, nor any pattern than could be satisfyingly ruptured by a surprise attack.
The extraordinary achievement of this run is that the same company will perform the play again in French the following week. Perhaps being performed in Sartre’s first language will give the performers greater license to engage with the philosophical heart of the piece, and reveal more of the darkness that lies deep beneath the surface.
The Flies is on at Bunker Theatre till 6th July. More info here.