It’s Only The End of the World
by Jean-Luc Lagarce
Dublin: Pavilion Theatre, Dun Laoghaire October 7 – 11, 2008
Presented as part of the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival
Directed by: Manuel Enrique Orjuela Cortes
Featuring Laura Garcia, John Alex Toro, Mauricio Navas, Laura London, Ella Fuksbrauner
A Colombian adaptation of an acclaimed but comparatively unknown play by a French playwright of some local renown sounds like ideal fodder for a theatre festival, and perhaps it is. What the audience is supposed to make of it is another question. Lagarce died in 1995 from an AIDS related illness, and the play concerns the homecoming of an artist dying of an unnamed ailment. His reunion with his family is not quite the tearful love-in that might be expected, but rather a series of confrontations in which tensions in his fractured family arise that have remained more or less underground in his absence. His presence triggers dischord, and, by logical extension, only his departure (death) will restore equilibrium.
The play seems to be concerned with many things, but mainly with communication and the gaps between individuals formed by various kinds of distance – emotional, physical, sexual, intellectual. These are represented in this production by a striking use of stage space and lighting by director Manuel Enrique Orjuela Cortes. The stage is sparsely decorated and the backdrop is a screen onto which surtitles are projected. The lighting takes the form of a series of suspended lightbulbs and other direct lighting sources controlled mainly by the actors. Turning lights on and off indicates presence, absence, anger, blockage, and various other elements of plot and characterisation, and movement around the stage in the dark or in the halflight represents different configurations of relationships (side conversations, group discussions, whispered confidences). This is all quite effective: very well orchestrated and executed by all concerned and reasonably clear.
However, the bizarre linguistic problem raised by the transnational journey from French to Spanish and Spanish to English is less clearly worked out. Though there seems to have been an intent certainly to select only certain lines of dialogue for translation in the surtitles (enough, basically, to grasp theme and the broad contours of plot) and though there are some speeches in English, much of the subtlety of the interactions of these characters are left entirely to stagecraft rather than language, and that’s really not enough. Yes, it is possible to understand this as yet another distantication effect and symbolic of barriers to communication. Yes, it is possible for an individual audience member to transpose aspects of their own understanding of relationships and their own experience onto the specifics they see in front of them. Yes, this is kind of interesting in one way. But the result is sometimes very long stretches entirely in Spanish which are not or are barely translated for the English-speaking audience, meaning that one’s mind tends to wander and lose the thread of what’s going on even as theatre.
As a presentation at the Dublin Theatre Festival, the play is part of a brief ‘season’ of Latin American drama, and that is also fair enough. Clearly the Hispanic communities came out to enjoy the production, and were chortling and responding to the dense swathes of dialogue that non-Spanish speakers had to watch as a pure theatre of movement and vocal register. So there are, in fact, two classes of audience here, and that doesn’t quite sit right either. It’s difficult to know if this is bold and challenging move, shaking the Anglophone audience in its complacency, or if it’s just annoying. Certainly my companion steadfastly refused to wait around for the post-show discussion because frankly, she couldn’t bear to spend another minute in the room, having been thoroughly bored and vaguely insulted by the metatheatrics. I could understand that, and duly left with her, but I would like to have known just what the company thought it was doing – what audience it was addressing here and why.
There are some evidently passionate performances, particularly Mauricio Navas as the angry younger brother, clearly put upon by having been left as surrogate father to this family in his brother’s absence. Laura Garcia does a nice line in a black clad and sombre Latina mother, as does Laura Londono as the hotheaded younger sister who barely knows her largely absent brother. But, at some point it becomes conjecture as to precisely how good the actors are, because though we can understand the movement, gestures, tones, and general sense of dialogue, we cannot make head nor tail of how they are responding to the detail of the text and how they are rendering the dialogue. When they speak in English, they are outside their normal register, and the effect is actually more jarring than the periodic, almost emblemetic surtitles.
There is something worthwhile going on in this play, yes, but I’m really not entirely sure everyone in the audience is invited to share in it.