This is a translation. An approximation of one language in another. A transformation from idiom to idiom. It’s important that you know that.
Translation is at the heart of Can I Start Again Please. Sue MacLaine’s show unfolds in two languages simultaneously: English and British Sign Language. MacLaine speaks aloud and her fellow performer Nadia Nadarajah translates, or vice versa. But meaning and language are slippery things. At times, the two different versions seem to slide away from one another. Ideas are lost in translation. Things are left unsaid.
This is no abstract meditation on the fallibility of language(s), though. This translation and mistranslation is a metaphor – a flawed one, because all metaphors (like all words) are imprecise – for an experience that tests the limits of the speakable. Subtly and painfully woven through the piece, in phrases with ugly submerged meanings, is MacLaine’s childhood experience of sexual abuse. Questioning what language can and can’t communicate, along with the consequences and costs of silence, abuse is a constant but rarely explicit presence, haunting the piece with quiet horror.
Throughout, both the limits and the power of language are made apparent. Certain phrases imply its legal force and manipulative violence, while others reveal it as insubstantial and insufficient. Echoes of trauma and interrogation resonate in seemingly innocuous sentences; the slipperiness of memory is reflected in the slipperiness of the words we use to retrieve it. MacLaine also reinforces the importance of context and patterns, reminding us that humans are ultimately meaning makers. How, though, to ensure that the meaning intended is the meaning received?
These are questions that also speak powerfully to theatre, and Can I Start Again Please is always aware of and sensitive to its medium. The two performers play with our quiet and sometimes complicit co-presence, asking the audience questions that we are not sure whether we should attempt to answer. And while it is largely a still, fairly static piece, there is nonetheless a certain theatricality to its staging. Both MacLaine and Nadarajah wear long, flowing dresses, suggestive of the epic or mythic, and repeat a series of ritualistic actions: the ringing of bells, the holding up of signs, the unfurling of paper. Gesture, meanwhile, becomes a doubled language: both the BSL translation and a form of wordless choreography.
The other thing that leaps out from the staging is the script or score that MacLaine and Nadarajah move smoothly across their laps as they perform. We can’t see its contents, but it acts as a further referent – suggestive perhaps of a legal transcript, as well as of a text for performance. It raises further questions of “truth” and “fidelity” (cautiously enclosed within quotation marks), as pages are seemingly skipped past or tossed aside. Which script is being followed (or not followed)?
Tim Crouch (with whom MacLaine has worked in the past) describes words as “the ultimate conceptual art form”. They are both labels pointing to different concepts and concepts in themselves. But words can be detached from the concepts and things they signify. As MacLaine discovers, lamps can be un-lamped, words unmoored from their meanings. Say any word enough times and it echoes with its own emptiness.
Threaded through it all is philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, and in particular his famous phrase “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”. This idea, like everything else, is prodded and pummelled over the course of the show. In many circumstances, there is only silence, but silence – and this point is powerfully made – is not the same as consent. And words may fail, but still they remain the imperfect tools with which we attempt to make ourselves heard. Can I Start Again Please asks us, more than anything, to listen.
Photo: Matthew Andrews.