Taylor Edmonds enjoys National Theatre Wales’ provocative production of English as part of Cardiff’s Festival of Voice.
English takes language, in its many forms, and dissects its very foundations. The provocative production, a collaboration between National Theatre Wales, Quarantine and Wales Millennium Centre, encourages its audience to open up into a conversation about language from a global perspective, along with the barriers and limitations it presents.
Through an A-Z of carefully selected words, Cardiff-based performer Jonny Cotsen, pauses where he feels appropriate, using words as a catalyst to tell his own stories of life as a deaf man, and leaves space for the audience to share their own experiences. This innovative, improvisational approach means that each performance has room to stray off course. To some degree, the direction the conversation will take is in the hands of the audience.
The production uses conversations with migrants about their experiences when learning the English language as a source of inspiration, this is evident in the lexical choices made when compiling the alphabet. We see words that are heavily loaded with the difficulties and injustices that migrants face, alongside playful, humorous words that derive from British culture. Jonny invites us to explore the global dominance of the English language, and the privilege that comes with being a native English speaker.
Video, designed by Simon Clode, is effective in creating depth to the feel of the performance. We are encouraged to think of language as fluid and larger than speech, as we are introduced to the language of dance through videos from the Northern Soul scene. Jonny shares a dance he has been learning in a moment of pure infectious joy, one of the many mediums of self-expression.
It is Jonny’s open nature and vulnerability that makes English such an intimate and thought-provoking experience. His performance feels natural and effortless, making the audience feel at ease and more likely to engage. He opens up about the challenges that language presents to him, and his methods of overcoming these challenges. Although some parts of the production are scripted, Jonny admits that some are also entirely improvised by himself. This makes his performance even more impressive and authentic, even brave, as every performance has the potential to be completely different from the previous.
English is a lively, interactive experience for its audience, an element that could be both its greatest success and flaw. We are encouraged to delve into ourselves and explore what language is to us, share our associations and stories in contribution, and question its influences on our interactions with those around us. This is successful in that it creates a sense of community between those involved, there is beauty in what is shared here.
Empathy is a major element to the production, as we see what it’s like to have self-expression obstructed by the barriers of language, experience the frustration of these limitations for ourselves. Although, as audience participation has such an influence over how the production pans out, the audience have potential to stunt the success of the performance. Its audience need to be willing to open up and share what they have to say, in order for conversation to flow and evolve. One thing is for sure, each audience member will take away their own individual experience, that will differ from the experience of others, as they apply the discussion to themselves and their surroundings.
English is an important conversation that feels like it should never end, there is much more to be picked apart than can fit into 90 minutes of performance, you leave the room wanting more, to go back the next day and pick up where you left off.
(photo credit: Toby Farrow)
Taylor Edmonds is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.
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