Apart from travel, theatre is one of my passions. I have been involved with theatre since 2003, both onstage and off, and I do my best to watch plays and musicals whenever I get the chance. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that I watched three shows during my two weeks in Europe.
It wasn’t something I’d planned before my trip. Sure, I was aware that Germany had a thriving theatre scene, and there was a show in Amsterdam that I was curious about. Still, I didn’t factor in watching shows in either my schedule or my budget. Once there, however, I couldn’t resist… never mind that two of the shows I watched weren’t even in English. Despite that, I was still able to appreciate and enjoy all three shows.
The experience taught me a lot about language. On one hand, knowing – or, in this case, not knowing – the language could help or hinder your enjoyment of the show. For example, jokes dependent on word usage were totally lost on me. On the other hand, it also made me appreciate the importance of other communication cues, such as tone and body language. Sometimes, the old adage is true, that “actions speak louder than words.” In fact, these observations could apply to either watching theatre, or traveling in a foreign country where there is a language barrier.
The first show I watched was a play entitled Dwelling in Bed Ain’t Bad. An English translation of a Dutch play (Dutch title: In bed is het fijn toeven) written by Paul Haenen, it “is a straightforward story on how two youthful men, real men, diligently and passionately share their bed and their lives and talk, act and move around themes as love, jealousy and hope.”
I watched the play in Amsterdam at the Betty Asfalt Complex. It’s a sweet and intimate play, very funny and entertaining, and quite heartfelt. Even if the play featured a gay male couple, this issues tackled could belong to any couple, straight or gay, which made it easier for everyone to relate to. On the other hand, because the original play was in Dutch, it seemed to me that there were a few things lost in translation. Some of the jokes fell a bit flat. Also, while the English was grammatically correct, the sentence construction and word usage were a little less conversational and casual, and a little more formal. It’s something I’ve noticed from people who don’t speak English as a first language; while it’s still generally correct, the choice of words clues you in that it’s not their native tongue. (I imagine the same would be true if I started studying another language and tried speaking it to a native speaker.) Still, in general, I liked the play.
The next show I watched was a musical, Monty Python’s Spamalot. This was at the Theater Carré, also in Amsterdam. I’d always wanted to see a production of this show, having listened to my copy of the original Broadway cast recording repeatedly. Watching this was a no-brainer for me, save for one small detail: It was translated into Dutch.
The staff at the theater were puzzled and amused that I’d watch the show. “You know the whole show is in Dutch, right?” I just smiled and told them that I knew what the show was about anyway, and that I was familiar with the songs. It was quite enjoyable to hear songs like “Diva’s Lament (What Ever Happened to My Part?)” in Dutch (translated into “Waar blijft in vredesnaam mijn rol?”).
There was a lot of physical comedy, but because most of the jokes were in the dialogue, there were a lot of times when I wasn’t laughing even as the rest of the theater was in stitches. For example, one song, “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway,” was not just translated, but many of the pop culture jokes and references were changed to make it Dutch. The resulting song is “Sterren van TV,” translated by Google Translate as “TV Stars.” Instead of a song about the role of Jews in producing Broadway musical, it was a song about how you need TV stars to put up a musical. It was still funny, but none of the TV stars they lampooned were familiar to me.
In this case, it wasn’t just language but context which made full enjoyment of the show a challenge. Still, I had a good time because it was a spectacular show. (Also, they sang the curtain call song “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” in English and invited the audience to sing along.)
The last show I watched was in Hamburg, Germany. I only had one day there, so I wasn’t really intent on watching a show there. However, the discounted last-minute tickets at the tourist information office was quite tempting, as was the selection. There was not just one but THREE shows playing in Hamburg, all musicals, all in German: Sister Act, The Lion King, and Tarzan. I wasn’t that familiar with the music of Sister Act (and so wanted to hear it in English first), and I’d seen The Lion King in English here in Singapore, so I watched Tarzan at the Theater Neue Flora.
Out of the three shows I watched, this was the one that I loved and enjoyed the most. First of all, I was already a fan of the music of the show, so even if it was all in German, I still loved listening to it live. Second, the show was a visual treat, not just because of the set and costumes, but also because of all the tricks involving hanging and swinging on wires (this IS Tarzan); it was quite exciting to see Tarzan swinging right above me. Third, I understood a lot more of this show than Spamalot; for starters, I knew just a bit more German than Dutch, plus because of the setting and story, there was a lot more emphasis on body language and nonverbal communication. (As a bonus, one of the actors was Filipino: Rommel Singson, who played Terk.)
I definitely enjoyed the show, so much that I bought not just the programme, but a bunch of other merchandise as well, including the cast recording and a pin (to add to my hat).
It still amazed me how much I understood of the two musicals I watched that were not in English. Even if I didn’t understand most of the jokes, I still laughed because there was something about the delivery that signalled my brain that it was a funny moment. Also, as an actor, it made me appreciate the ability to express emotions and ideas without uttering a single word… something that many travelers go through in foreign countries, as anyone who has played charades to order a meal or get directions can attest to.