Thursday, 3 May 2012

Learning Me Your (Hebrew) Language

The sentence immediately following this warning is going to make me sound wanky and pretentious.  Please ignore the inner voice that shouts ‘bellend’ loudly at the screen, and in the words of the awesome beefcake that is George Michael, listen without prejudice.

In a few weeks I am going to The Globe theatre on the banks of the Thames to watch a performance of The Merchant of Venice… in Hebrew.

Yup,  so…anyway  *foot shuffle, look downwards*…still there?  Oh, goodo.  Let’s carry on then.

‘Do you speak Hebrew?’ I hear you ask. 
‘No,’ I reply.
‘Are you going with Hebrew-speaking friends that will explain what is happening as it goes along?’ you query, with puzzlement.
‘No, I’m going on my own’, I respond proudly.
“Are you even Jewish?’ you say, grasping at straws.
‘NOT EVEN A TINY BIT’ I shout back, good-naturedly.

This lively and informative Q & A could go on for hours, but I’m away at the weekend and I’ve got packing to do. Instead I’ll just explain why.

Well, to put it simply, why not?

When the email arrived a few months ago, about Shakespeare’s Globe  Theatre's 2012 season, Globe To Globe  – every Shakespeare play performed in a different language over several months – I was intrigued immediately.  The email (just a basic mailing list send-out; sadly, they didn’t actually invite me personally) directed me to the website  and to, what I like to call, the One Armed Bandit of Cultural Fabbyness.  Put simply, you choose the language that you prefer from the central dial, and then watch as the play and performance date cha-ching into action, lining up along side like a pub slot machine with Shakespeare goodness rather than the usual cherries and jaffa cakes.  (I have never actually played a pub fruit machine.  There are jaffa cakes aren’t there?  *Confused look*)
Anyway, I held my breath, carefully selecting the language in which I am most proficient – German.  My GCSE (grade C, thank you) has stood me in good stead for many an important interaction over the years  (Ich tanze gern…mein mutter ist ein kleiderschrank…) so I was confident that I would handle a well-acted dramatisation if played out before me.  Imagine my horror when the rolling slots settled, aligning German with … Timon of Athens! 
Now, Timon of Athens may be Super-Shakey’s finest work to grace the stage, but I have never read it, seen a performance of it, nor watched a Kenneth Branagh DVD version on a Sunday afternoon with tea, toast and a blanket.  To put it bluntly, as a Timon of Athens virgin, to be deflowered in a language whose key phrases, I am only now beginning to realise, I have but a smattering, would be too intense an experience for little old me. 
‘But what of the Globe-to-Globe season? ‘ I fretted internally.  It would all be going on without me and I would experience overwhelming pangs of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) that, as we all know, can be truly debilitating,    
So, I collected myself and returned to the Globe’s website.  Being very clever, and thinking outside the box, I considered the problem the other way around.  Which play did I know best?  Which performance would I follow regardless of language?  Which was the play I would be able to offer a running interpretation alongside, such was the level of my understanding?  And then it became clear. 

The Merchant of Venice.

The Merch was my very first experience of Shakespeare, and like all dry-mouthed, nervous fumblings that hint at orgasm without delivering, you never forget your first time.  Year Ten, 1993 (one year into the progressive name-change for what retro fans might still call Fourth Year seniors) I encountered Antonio, Shylock and Portia in my GCSE English class.  Brace yourself for a clich√© but it was as if a whole new world had opened up, waving me inside with the promises of exhaustive word-play and enjoyable confusion.  The Merch was fab.  I devoured it, read around it, learnt chunks of it and realised that life would never be the same again.  That same year, Mr. Branagh entered stage right with his cinematic Much Ado About Nothing, so my Shakey love-affair continued. 

So, back to the one-armed bandit of English literature - after choosing The Merchant of Venice and twirling the dials, it appeared that the language selected for this is Hebrew.  Optimistically, I am supposing that there will be some words that are the same (character names for example) and the fact that the play will be acted on stage, should jolly everything along, making the plot more apparent than if it were just being spoken, say, on the radio.

The final encouraging thought popped up before I clicked ‘book now’ was that as a youngster on a school trip to Germany in 1990, we were made to go to mass, what with it being a Catholic school, and it being a Sunday, and us having to do as we were told.  So I sat through an hour of German churchyness, where it transpired that my newly-perfected enquiries about the location of the nearest station, or being able to tell everyone loudly and proudly that I was twelve, were rather inadequate to my literal understanding of the words used.  But here’s the thing.  I knew exactly what was going on, because of almost weekly mass attendances every Sunday of my little life up to that point.  I knew what was happening without the individual words being understood.  This was the deciding argument in the tiny mental wrangle I had before booking tickets. 
Only after receiving the confirmation email, did I recognise the fact that I have not actually attended a weekly Merchant performance every Sunday at 10am for the whole of my childhood.  This is a shame because firstly, how wonderful would that have been (just think of it!) and secondly, I may still find myself confused when it comes to the performance at the end of the month.  However, just as it was when I was in Year Ten, I am sure it will be an enjoyable confusion; the kind that envelopes you, making you sit back and relax as you become surrounded by marvellous words, actions and meanings, and you just go with the flow, knowing it will all be clear at some point.

For now, however, just so we are all up to speed, may I direct you to this website which has given me a head start in the Hebrew basics.  Among the key phrases listed, ‘I don’t understand’, ‘Please say it again’ and ‘ My hovercraft is full of eels’ are sure to provide me with the essentials for my exciting night at the theatre.


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