Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Tempest -- in French by high schoolers

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

Yesterday was the day of the 11th grade class' theater performance.  Always with a theme of seeking meaning in this life, querying why we are on this earth, this year's choice was Shakespeare's The Tempest.  The thirteen kids in the class, with the help of their literature teacher and a theater director from Avignon put on a two and a half hour performance, with a mostly intact text, three players of Prospero, music, movement, and bi-linguality.  Those who were English language natives (two in the class) performed most of their text in English, with a smattering of French.  Of the others, only two uttered not a word of English. The rest, with highly varied results, boldly strode forth and spoke in a language not their own at birth.  It was wonderful, even if I didn't understand a word of the strangely emphasized English of two of the Prosperos.

Leo and Jonas had seen it with the whole school in the morning.  So I'd already received notice from Leo that he'd enjoyed it, and understood all the French (of course Ma!) and the English of the English natives, but he'd had a hard time with the accented English.  Strange how our ears can be accustomed or not to hearing our own tongue altered. It makes me think of the French subtitles accompanying any documentary or interview in French speaking African countries. I can understand their French simply by listening to the person himself, so why the need to assist real French people in understanding their French? It could be my years in New York City listening to English spoken in nearly every accent possible that attuned them to comprehending even the most distorted sounds.  And yes, even I was caught in a fog by two of these young actors.

It is a huge event this theatrical performance. The 11th graders spend an intense stretch of time choosing the piece, re-working the text as necessary, preparing, making all their own costumes, incorporating voice, music, movement. And this year's class will take this production with them on their trip to India (thus in part the effort to keep a maximum of the text in its original English). Next year, when they choose their individual directions -- switching to the public school system to pass the baccalauréat exams, or taking an alternate route towards a manual activity such as woodworking -- they will have under their belt an achievement of immense proportions, and simply that knowledge in themselves, will (hopefully) render future challenges easier to face.

I tried to get my vintner to come with me last night. But, he's not a scholar, and the prospect of Shakespeare was daunting to him.  He does enjoy reading (one of his attractions), but contemporary novels, and often written by women.  He's borrowed my Women Running with Wolves and for his birthday I offered him (in translation) Eat, Pray, Love -- feeling a kinship to the author, perhaps he'd understand his American love better after reading it...  And he enjoys learning, he's been taking a course yearly, be it related to psychology or renewable agricultural practices for some time.  But, he drew the line at Shakespeare.  

So, daughter of a Shakespearean scholar that I am, I tried to convey to him (over the phone Wednesday evening) the story-line of the piece, the themes touched, and that truly, it was quite accessible.  No go.  Ah well. It is all of a piece I suppose, I've not been with a highly educated man (in the traditional university sense) since my boyfriend from Princeton. And, at least with the balance of the kids' school and my family, I haven't missed it too much.  Though at times, it would be fun to bounce those literary references off someone... I'll have to wait for the next New Year's feast in Boston at my friends' (a hornets' nest of Shakespearean scholars!) home.

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