The Translator's Dilemma

Sat 6th – Sat 27th August 2011


Pat Massey

at 11:05 on 28th Aug 2011



Five star productions have to both excel *and upend* my expectations. Having been asked to review a play I had, after all, passed up in the first instance, I expected an hour to pass and secure me, at least, another byline. Five minutes in I had that most glorious of feelings: coming up trumps in the Fringe pot luck.

Jessica Phillippi enters pretending to be our substitute lecturer. She does this well, and you wait for the fourth wall to reassemble itself. But then she puts up acetate slides introducing us to Legal Translation... and we start the lesson. If you went to a genuine law school, Phillippi's acetate slides and class banter is what you would find. As people are picked to read us through slides, you realize the drama of the piece is not going to turn in on itself: we will not become discreet witnesses of Phillippi and her co-actor, whoever this may be. We are the chorus.

The programme is withheld from us prior to the show, for fear of spoilers, and all the flyer does is to hint at Phillippi's translator's involvement in the legal case study we are taught about. Naturally our suspicions are aroused: is that nameless figure actually the translator? Is she guilty of something? Is everyone watching this *just* watching this? Playing detective is great fun, prompting as many 'called it's as lightbulb moments.

Eventually, Phillippi's co-actor makes their presence known and the theatrics begin. It is the use of “motherf*cking” which triggers an irreversible break with how a real lesson would go, but Phillippi makes this swearing sound unaffected: the Halley's Comet of 'issue theatre', where onstage compels a subconscious 'Calm down, dear...'. Her ensuing breakdown, her Pinteresque abuse of her co-actor heralds faster and frequent turns of the screw. It progresses via set-pieces tackling all the connotations of the term 'dual language', within and between different tongues, through intricate and ingenious uses of technology. Timing, clarity and imaginative commitment need to be perfect for these set-pieces to succeed. The former are, the latter do. Kudos to director Ishbel McFarlane for making this work.

Whilst not of a natural temperament for 'issue theatre', I believe Phillippi could make a profound effect on others. To sculpt a problem of which one is on the outside into a convincing character suffering within it, as this writer-cum-actress does, requires impressive empathy. To frame said character portrait in a way as unusual and frequently risky as this is quintessential Fringe and quintessential five star. I look back at my notes and think “It's amazing that actually worked” and “If only I were immoral enough to steal that idea for myself”. If Scandal Theatre returns to the Fringe, not going would be a fallacy. If Scandal Theatre restrains itself to the Free Fringe again, not going would be idiotic.


Helen Catt

at 12:20 on 28th Aug 2011



To begin with, I wasn't entirely sure that the play had started. When the flustered woman, who came into the room with piles of folders and a tape recorder, told us she was sorry she was late and please, talk among yourselves, I had a whispered argument with my partner reviewer about whether or not this was part of the act. It turned out he was right – it was.

This was the case for much of the performance – it was always a little uncertain how much was staged and how much was real. The audience were essentially extras in this piece – we were the class that Ottavia – Jessica Phillippi, who also wrote the script – was taking as a supply teacher, following the lesson plan left by the usual teacher. This lesson plan takes her somewhat off-guard.

I am reluctant to give away too much of this play after those involved have worked so hard to keep the suspense. The programme isn't even given out until after the performance so as to preserve this suspense. It is this that prevents me from naming another key member of the performance, whose contribution was skilfully made and added a great deal of raw emotion to the piece.

“Raw emotion” is something of a keyword when reviewing this particular piece. The switches between Italian and English only increase this. When someone is speaking our own language, it is easy to focus more on what they say than the way they say it. But hearing someone speak in their mother tongue with as much force and passion as Phillippi is a hugely moving experience – without understanding her words, you recognise her anguish through the tone of her voice, her face, her gestures – all usually aspects that we take into account to support the meaning of the words – but just as someone who loses their sight discovers they can rely on their hearing, with our ability to understand the words stripped from us, our other senses heighten. We understand the feeling and the force behind the words as well as ever.

The Translator's Dilemma carries a serious point, and it delivers it in a sensitive, thought-provoking way. It is never preachy – it isn't trying to moralise, merely to bring to the forefront of our attention an issue that is often left at the back.

Without wishing to moralise, I would encourage anyone to think about the issues raised in this play. But first and foremost, I would encourage you simply to watch it as a great piece of free theatre.


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