October 27, 2016


“It’s probably more entertaining when you can understand what’s going on.”

This thought has doubtlessly occurred to many theatre-goers, especially if they've had to sit blankly through the uproarious laughter of other audience members and deal with the frustration of having completely missed the joke.

A scene from Anything You Want.
(Copyright Emmanuel Murat)
But missing out because of the language barrier is not an inevitable experience – translation, if done well, can make a big difference between enjoyment and befuddlement at the theatre. One just has to attend a show in Paris of the hit comedy Tout Ce Que Vous Voulez (Anything You Want) to understand how elevating subtitling, or "surtitling", can be.

As the play unfolds in French, the dialogue is projected in English on the horizontal bar high above the stage, with French colloquialisms and idioms transformed into the equivalent expressions. This is of great assistance to English-speakers, as could be seen from the reactions of a group of New Yorkers on one particular night. The visitors were able to chortle right along with the Francophone viewers and to clap with real enthusiasm at the end, because the brilliance of the play wasn’t lost in translation, or incomprehension.

The surtitling of Anything You Want and several other plays is provided by Theatre in Paris, a company that partners with top productions to offer this service to theatre-lovers who aren’t necessarily proficient in French. But it works even for those fluent in the language, as what is said at a live show can so easily slip past spectators in a moment of distraction.

The poster for the play.
Founded in 2014, Theatre in Paris works with a bilingual team of translators, says their Communications Spokesperson Jessica Gilligan. The group offers a personal welcome at the selected theatre, a pre-show introduction to the play or musical, and particular seats that make it easy to read the surtitles.

Spectators also receive a special programme in English, with a synopsis of each show. (The current productions include Oliver Twist, The Musical; The Cid; Summer '44 – with Marisa Berenson; Cyrano de Bergerac; and I Love Piaf.)  The brochure for Anything You Want  includes information on the cast, director and writers.

Starring the award-winning French actress Bérénice Bejo, the play is a cleverly written romantic comedy about … writing a play. Successful author Lucie (Bejo) is dealing with writer’s block because she’s too happy with her newfound life. Her main source of inspiration previously came from her struggles and inherent angst. So what can she do now?

Enter an annoying new neighbor named Thomas (Stéphane De Groodt), who has all kinds of ideas for how she can overcome her lack of creation. The development of their relationship, through twists and turns, makes for an entertaining play, with superior acting and a credible, creative set.

The Cid also has surtitles.
Directed by Bernard Murat, and written by Matthieu Delaporte and Alexandre de la Patellière, the play’s ingenuity comes across clearly in the English surtitles. A word might be omitted here or there so that readers can keep up with the pace, but this is a minor detail.

The only other issue would be if the actors began improvising with their dialogue, but then "that's theatre" and all part of the experience.  

“Anything You Want” runs through 28 January 2017, at the imposing Théâtre Édouard VII in the 9th arrondissement.  WICE is offering its members a special Theatre in Paris evening to see the play, with discounted tickets, and a complimentary glass of wine, on Nov. 18. For further information and registration: http://www.wice-paris.org/event-2268639.

Theatre in Paris has also offered prizes to WICE members (see article on the WICE Fall Open House), and winners will get to attend a production of their choice. 

More information about the productions: www.theatreinparis.com