by Robbie Love
MATTHEW BOSLEY IS A LONDON-BASED THEATRE DIRECTOR. HE HAS SPENT THE LAST 3 YEARS WORKING WITH THE ENGLISH TOURING OPERA1 ON A RANGE OF PRODUCTIONS INCLUDING MOZART’S THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO, VERDI’S MACBETH AND HANDEL’S GIULIO CESARE. HE HOLDS A PGDIP IN THEATRE DIRECTING FROM MOUNTVIEW ACADEMY OF THEATRE ARTS AND AN MA IN THEATRE AND PERFORMANCE FROM LANCASTER UNIVERSITY.
One of the many things I have missed during the Covid-19 pandemic is the theatre. So it was a pleasure to speak with Matthew about the role of language in the theatre. Specifically discussing how live theatre may offer a great opportunity for language learners to develop their skills. Let’s find out some more…
How important is the role of language in the theatre?
Language is extremely important in the theatre as it is the primary means of communication. Indeed, a major purpose of the rehearsal process is to explore how the language of theatre texts can be expressed. Almost all theatre uses language to some extent, but it’s certainly not the only way of communicating on stage. You can also see theatre where communication is achieved through movement, so you could say that this is a type of universal ‘language’. But overall, theatre is a medium for language.
Does the language you find in the theatre reflect authentic language use?
Sometimes! There are some playwrights, like Harold Pinter and Alan Bennett, who write their characters to speak like people do in ‘real life’. Or they highlight the mundanity of the way we can use language in an everyday setting. Theatre is of course a very creative area, and so you find modified versions of language which don’t sound as natural but fit the style of the piece.
Take William Shakespeare for example. A common misconception is that Shakespearian English simply reflected the English that was spoken in the 16th and 17th centuries, but that’s not true. Shakespeare’s language is highly stylised and poetic, and certainly does not represent authentic speech from the time. Interestingly, audiences who went to see Shakespeare’s plays at the time used to talk about going to ‘hear’ a play. This is because the focus of the audience was intended to be on the language the actors were speaking. Over time this changed. Nowadays we say we are going to ‘see’ a play, which shows a culture in which the visual aspects of theatre are considered to be much more important now than they were.
In the UK, most theatre is performed in English, and it is expected (for better or worse) that the audience has proficiency in English enough to understand. But some theatre —particularly opera— is performed in other languages like German, Italian and French. Are audiences expected to know these languages to understand what the performers are singing?
In short, no. For the last few years I’ve worked as Staff Director for the English Touring Opera. My main job is to assist the director in producing the operas, but one of my other jobs is to operate ‘surtitles’. Surtitles are a translation of the words being sung which appear on a screen, typically above the stage. The audience can read the words on the screen if they don’t understand the language of the opera. People assume this is done automatically, but anything can happen in the theatre, so I operate the surtitles live with every performance!
I think it’s excellent to have surtitles because it improves accessibility. People who don’t know the language that the opera is being performed in have the chance to have the language translated into something they understand. As you say, this isn’t done so much for English-language theatre in the UK. Theatres in Europe seem to offer surtitles more routinely at the theatre, regardless of the language of the production. Perhaps, like other ways of improving accessibility, audiences could choose to book a performance which is surtitled.
Almost all theatre uses language to some extent, but it’s certainly not the only way of communicating on stage.
So have you noticed a general trend of theatre becoming more accessible over time?
Absolutely— not just in terms of language, but in other ways too. Like improved wheelchair access, pre-show ‘touch tours’ of the theatre for the visually impaired, sign language interpreted performances, audio-described performances, relaxed performances. It’s brilliant.
Finally, what role do you think theatre could play in supporting someone who is learning English?
As I said earlier, language is a big part of theatre. So, it’s a great place to explore language, especially when there is a translation. In my experience of learning German as a foreign language, I’ve enjoyed watching German theatre with English surtitles. Particularly trying to keep up with what was going on on-stage, and using the surtitles if I needed them. Often language learners are encouraged to watch films and TV shows in their target language. Improvements in language accessibility in the theatre means it’s more possible to enjoy live theatre as a language learner too.
It’s also interesting to look at how theatre texts are translated between languages. I recently saw a German-language production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. As a language learner it was a fun challenge to notice how they had retained the poetry and style in the translation.
Thank you, Matthew, for your insights about language in the theatre!
Dr Robbie Love is a Lecturer in English Language at the School of Social Sciences and Humanities at Aston University, UK. He conducts research and teaches in a range of topics in linguistics including corpus linguistics, discourse analysis and language education. Robbie holds a PhD in Linguistics from Lancaster University.