Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Speaking In Tongues

There were so many moments of Natalie Abrahami's production of Anne Washburn’s The Internationalist at the Gate that I loved, that I can't quite understand why I didn't enjoy the whole thing more than I did.

For a start, the whole concept was intriguing – an American businessman, Lowell, arrives in unnamed foreign country where he doesn't speak the lingo and doesn't quite understand what's going on around him, and, because the remainder of the cast spend a good proportion of the play conversing in a made up European language, by extension neither do the audience.

The air of dislocation and jet-legged befuddlement created by the production was spot on. And I loved the inter-scene snippets of 1940s music and the neatly choreographed dream/sex sequences that complimented rather than distracted from the material. I also liked its gradual shift from quirky romance to something more sinister and vaguely nightmare-like. I suppose my main problems were with the play itself; I just felt that there were too many narrative avenues that never really went anywhere. And I was never quite sure whether my sympathies were meant to lie with Lowell – the American abroad – or with Sara, the sweet filing clerk at his firm who collects him from the airport. Abrahami certainly seems to be slanting the production towards the latter, but the play doesn’t really allow us to get to know her. There were some vague references to her being mental ill but these were rather brushed aside.

My other problem was that, once Washburn’s premise has been established – once we grasp that this is a language of her own creation onto which any number of possible meanings can be projected – the production loses a little of its impetus. I liked so much about it, there were some quite enchanting moments, but the moments never really knitted together for me.

I stayed on for the post-show talk with the Gate’s artistic directors Carrie Cracknell and Natalie Abrahami and the cast, where they discussed the unique difficulties of staging play where half the dialogue is basically nonsense (I’m sure the Whingers would have an appropriate comment to add at this point, but I shall leave it alone). They revealed that they had christened Washburn’s language Muffle – their abbreviation of Made Up Foreign Language – and Gary Shelford, one of the cast, explained how, no matter how thoroughly you rehearse the lines the brain occasionally injects an English word into the tide of gibberish and he ended up blurting “tumble drier” at an inopportune point on press night.

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