“Consistently raw, emotional and human”
Editorial Rating: 2 Stars Nae Bad
For many years, Tennessee Williams’ immortal “A Streetcar Named Desire” conjured up two shared memories: the off-yellow, stained tooth colour of chipboard desks; and the strange, (and in hindsight, quite sad) familiarity with which my divorced, middle-aged English teacher spoke about the dangers of hiding in fantasies.Now, thanks to the Tumanishvilli Film Actor’s Company and director Keti Dolidze, it’s far easier to think of quiet intricacy, and the heartfelt ebb of Georgian on a smoke-filled stage.
From the get-go, it clear this is a production which has been undertaken with care. The monotone stamp of poverty is imprinted surprisingly well on the set. Had it not been lit up on the Assembly Roxy stage, I would have had no trouble believing it had all just been sitting in the French Quarter. But what was most admirable about the set was its clever use of shadow. Translucent material and a little light transformed what in any other production would have simply been a rearward wall into a very entertaining transition tool: whilst set is moved around, the audience is treated to dancing shadows, or the silhouette of a saxophonist. And whilst occasionally these transitory segments went on a little too long, they were nevertheless welcome. Combined with excellent, well-timed soundscaping, it was clear the overall audiovisual design had received the care it deserved.
However, the background paled in comparison to the string of strong performances. It would be difficult to place the strongest actor in what is obviously a very seasoned cast. Even sans translation, this was a show which was consistently raw, emotional and human. Nineli Chankvetadze’s Blanche in particular showed almost uncanny emotional range, bringing depth to every smile and frightened sob even when the emotions in between were few. Kudos also to Imeda Arabuli as Stanley Kowalski, who lent an almost frightening hypermasculine, bestial quality to a character who is so easily made trite by a lesser actor.
With the aforementioned strengths, then, you could be forgiven for wondering why I’ve given this show a surprisingly low rating. And whilst, clearly, many of its component parts merit celebration, it is unfortunate then that this production was completely and utterly failed by its translation. Whilst subtitling a foreign language work is a fine idea, its execution onstage was risible.
From half a line being completely cut off (which happened often), to the subtitles stalling or – even more frustratingly, skipping back and forth in an obvious effort to re-find the dialogue – and the surprisingly low quality of what should have been a simple transcription of Williams’ original transcript (Prize contenders include the immortal phrase: “I’ll never forget the colour of his yes!”), the translation of this show was consistently frustrating. Even worse, the form and punctuation of character dialogue was not so much confused as nonexistent, leaving much of the second half reading as if Blanche was having the most spectacular breakdown ever seen on stage.
But even worse was the fact that, as an audience member, I often found myself between Scylla and Charybdis: either losing myself in the wonderful performances on show and having no idea what was being said, or half-understanding the dialogue whilst being unable to see the show itself as I craned my vision to the extreme top left of the stage. Had the subtitling quality been better this may have been less of a problem, but given the internal problem-solving required to make the subtitles coherent, it was like I had simply stepped outside for half the play. I shudder at the prospect of having seen this work without first being familiar with the plot beyond cultural osmosis, as a surprising number of people are. Given that the importance that the language plays in Streetcar, I was legitimately shocked at the poor quality of its execution.
In terms of its actual materiality, Keti Dolidze has crafted a fine show indeed. And, if you’re fluent enough to understand Georgian on the stage, I’m sure it would make for an afternoon to remember. Had it been simply billed as a foreign language play, even an English speaker would be able to understand, at least, the raw emotional content from performance alone. But, as it stands, the almost fantastically poor quality of translation packaged with this show made engaging with it a chore by the final half hour. With some simple tweaks, A Streetcar Named Desire could have quite handily added two more stars. But, as it stands, perhaps the kindness of strangers is less important than the kindness of transcribers.
Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 5 August)
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