A scene from Rêver Peut-Être, the first of the three plays to kick-off the Cambridge International Theatre FestivalMarie-Louise James

While foreign-language film has become an established staple of the British cultural diet, foreign-language theatre has never quite made the same transition into the cultural mainstream. Cambridge theatre as a whole has a tendency to be a bit poor at doing the whole ‘diversity thing’. But a group of students want to shake things up – cue the Cambridge International Theatre Festival, a term-long celebration of “non-English theatre and genres” featuring plays performed in French, Spanish and Italian. I sat down with the organisers to talk about the Festival’s genesis, and some of their reflections on the process of putting on a play in a different language.

The three plays, Rêver Peut-Être by Jean-Claude Grumberg (French), Historia de una Escalera by Antonio Buero Vallejo (Spanish) and Morte Accidentale di Un Anarchico by Dario Fo (Italian) are thematically diverse and span several genres. What ties them together is that they are, most unusually for Cambridge theatre, being performed in their original languages, rather than in translation.

When I asked where the idea for the Festival came from, the group sheepishly admits that the initial stimulus was a desire to combine publicity forces and engage in some (rather savvy, it must be said) mutual advertising. As they made further plans, however, they realised that a rare opportunity was before them: fortuitous circumstances were bringing not one, but three foreign-language plays to the Cambridge stage in the same term. Sophie-Marie Niang, producer of Rêver Peut-Être, and Romy Welch, director of Historia de una Escalera, explained that the Festival was the natural outgrowth of their desire to create a space for foreign-language theatre to be celebrated, and to combat accessibility issues in Cambridge theatre (particularly for those for whom English is not their first language).

The driving principle behind the Festival is to open a space for cross-cultural dialogue, by staging a series of plays that can catalyse discussions about cultural identity and theatrical genres, bringing together different communities in the process. Demand is clearly not an issue – Victor Rees, director of Morte Accidentale di Un Anarchico, noted that the Italian play is in its fifth year, and has regularly performed to sell-out audiences. The Festival has the two-fold aim of encouraging those who struggle to access English-language theatre to get involved, and to introduce foreign-language theatre to Cambridge student audiences.

My somewhat inevitable and rather predictable follow-on questions about where the Festival sits within the post-Brexit landscape are met with good-natured groans from around the table. Lina Fradin, director of the French play, points out that today there is perhaps “a stronger need than ever before” for opportunities for dialogue, and spaces in which we can escape the communal echo-chamber. My own sense is that the Festival offers a refreshingly different opportunity for discussion about European identity and culture, distanced from the rancid, hyper-politicised discourse more often prioritised in Cambridge and beyond.

Discussion of rehearsal process with a mixed cast of native and non-native speakers throws up the theme that the plays themselves embody, both internally and externally, a kind of conversation between different cultural perspectives. Fradin explains that through directing non-French actors, she had to reinvigorate her own understanding of the text in explaining its nuances to cast members who may not share the same cultural touchstones – a pleasing reversal of the experience of non-English students in the Cambridge theatre scene!

At the same time, the plays themselves invite a dialogue with audiences – by providing just enough information for English-speaking audiences to follow the plot without attempting to translate the plays, more space is created for interpretation and conversation. Harriet Phillips, who is impressively involved in all three productions, drew attention to the additional possibilities for “intertextual dialogue” between the plays under the umbrella of the Festival.

These points about ‘facilitating dialogue’ and ‘improving accessibility’ are all well and good, but is there anything more justifying the performance of these texts in the original languages? Why go through all this extra hassle if a good translation would suffice? The group was passionate in their insistence on the distinctive value and character of international theatre. While we might think that art deals in universals, they said, the specifics of these common themes are mediated through cultural lenses.

Rees related a neatly illustrative anecdote about his experience performing in a translated Russian play last year: the sole native Russian speaker in the production had complained, with no little aggravation, that the actors were “far too English” in their styles of performance. International theatre brings with it not just literally different texts, but also a range of perspectives and ways of being that cannot be replicated by translations.

As the discussion draws to a close, there is a tangible sense of possibility around the table – the long-term vision is for the International Theatre Festival to become a regular part of the Cambridge theatre scene. What really stands out about the Festival is the reflective hand it extends to us all: foreign-language theatre asks us to turn our gaze back upon the holistic nature of performance and challenges us to reconsider where the essence of theatre lies – whether in textual comprehension, or in the experience itself.

Rêver Peut-Être is on at the Corpus Playroom 6-10 February; Morte Accidentale di Un Anarchico is on at the Robinson College Auditorium 15-17 February; Historia de una escalera is on at the Fitzpatrick Hall 6-7 March

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