‘The Speaker’s Progress’ flounders in translation

BEIRUT: One of the shortcomings in human physiological design is that the eyes prefer to perform as a pair. That they cannot focus independently of each other – unlike those of a chameleon, say – makes it impossible to split one’s visual attention in two.

This shortcoming isn’t of much concern – humans being generally satisfied with binocular vision – but it becomes significant for the non-Arabic speaking audience of “The Speaker’s Progress,” Sabab Theater’s final installment of its The Arab Shakespeare Trilogy.

Loosely based on Shakespeare’s comedy “Twelfth Night,” “The Speaker’s Progress,” which was staged at The Sunflower Cultural Center over the weekend, is set in a totalitarian state where theater is banned.

One theater play from the 1960s remains a focal point for dissidents. In an effort to stem this defiance, the regime commissions The Speaker, a retired dramaturge turned regime apologist, to stage a version of the play that both reconstructs and denounces the original.

With a troupe of nine “envoys” – the regime wouldn’t allow “actors” – The Speaker sets about doing this, with unforeseen, rambunctious and game-changing consequences.

Performed in Arabic with English surtitles – projected above the action – the play opens with The Speaker alone on stage, explaining his position and task as the English translation is projected on a screen to his left. It’s easy to follow him and all is well. Then he introduces his cast, the screen goes up and the reconstruction begins.

Now the surtitles are projected above and to the back of the stage. This is a problem as one cannot possibly simultaneously read the translation and observe the on-stage action. Forsaking either diminishes the viewer’s experience of the performance, because the strength, wit and entertainment of this play definitely lie in its combination of text, acting and set design.

The envoys commence the performance nervously, on a stage surrounded by bureaucratic apparatus and presided over by The Speaker and a censor who sounds an alarm whenever dialogue is improvised or the action drifts from its state-sanctioned course.

A meter stick is amusingly employed to ensure that the official 90-centimeter distance is maintained between male and female players at all times.

As the play progresses, the spirit of the theater begins to take over. Digressions from the approved performance increase in regularity. The set, lighting and costumes evolve from bleak greys, whites and blacks to colorful oranges, reds and yellows. Eventually the cry rises, in English, “Defect!”

While the momentum is building, alas, the surtitles are falling apart. As they lapse several lines behind the onstage dialogue, it becomes increasingly difficult to understand who is saying what, especially when there are more than two members of the 10-man cast engaged in conversation. It becomes frustrating.

Meanwhile the progressively absurdist nature of what’s happening beneath the translation also grows challenging to follow. Interesting use is made of a hairdryer, which seems to serve as a gun, but with one’s attention divided and the surtitles lagging behind the dialogue, its significance – like much else – falls through the cracks of translation.

These cracks will have to be mended when the show takes on the English-speaking world. An English-language program wouldn’t go amiss either.

Sabab Theater ought to get moving on this since, as its website suggests, “The Speaker’s Progress” is set to tour Boston and New York next month.

The exposure is no doubt deserved, as (translation aside), it appeared a very strong cast delivered a polished performance. That said, the Sunflower’s Saturday evening audience was underwhelmed with the effort. A smattered single round of applause closed the performance, drawing the cast out for a single bow. As appears to be a tradition at the Sunflower, one gentleman rested his eyes and snored gently throughout.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 26, 2011, on page 16.




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