I'm already starting to get excited about a production of Gogol's Revizor which will be performed this summer bilingually in Russian and English at the local Shakespeare festival. This kind of thing absolutely fascinates me, for reasons which should be obvious to my readers here.
And it seems to be something which is not terribly uncommon; at least, I can think of a number of other similar projects where a play is performed in multiple languages for an audience who is not necessarily expected to understand both languages. One is a production of Wedekind's Frühlings Erwachen which a friend of mine in Germany participated in (and which opened approximately a week to late for me to see it, to my great regret). Deaf and hearing actors collaborated on the production, which was performed partly in sign language and partly in German. There's also a theater company in France called Demodocos, which regularly puts on performances in ancient Greek and French.
What is it about theater in particular that is receptive to such an undertaking in a way that novels, say, are not?
What particularly intrigues me is not the multilingualism per se, but the way it's being used in all of these examples. Switching languages is a common phenomenon in multilingual communities, but that's not the way it's being used here. The use of one language rather than another isn't embedded in a communicative speech situation, it's not a pragmatic choice made based on social considerations, but instead, externally and arbitrarily imposed, more or less. It may be significant here that the plays being performed are classics -- that is, the audience can be assumed to have some general familiarity with the story beforehand. They're not new plays, not plays written specifically with the intention of being performed in multiple languages.
There's something else that interests me, though: Specifically, the effect of partial non-comprehension on the part of the audience.
Obviously, one of the purposes of such projects is the cross-cultural collaboration, both for actors and audience. The French theater company is a little different because it's not bringing together two different groups of people, but the mediating function is similar: integrating classical Greek into a modern performance and trying to give the contemporary audience a glimpse of this world of the past.
Opera, of course, is another example of theater which is frequently performed in a language that the audience may not know, so the parallels may help us understand what's going on here. Certainly the presence of the actors on stage, their gestures, costumes, emotions, help the audience to follow the plot even if they don't understand all the words. But opera -- like so many foreign films -- is often performed with subtitles; there is thus a delay in comprehension, but ultimately we are provided with the meaning.
Here, however, there's a certain amount of resistance. A translation is not provided. One minute the words are easy to understand, the next we have to guess at what is happening. Undoubtably there are Brechtian motives at work here, preventing the audience from identifying too easily with what is happening on stage.
Considered another way, there's a certain appropriateness to having the actors speaking different languages. Theater is typically multi-voiced: it reveals the widely different ideologies which clash when we interact with each other. Both tragedy and comedy are arguably about the failure to communicate, albeit with different consequences. About the roles we play, about how easily we deceive ourselves and each other.