In super-Mediterranean heat, I’ve never seen the concrete terraces of the National Theatre looking more bosky. Someone has been busy installing planters, and many others must have been busy watering them through the bone dry conditions of the last couple of months. The river-facing terraces were full of relaxed people in deck chairs clutching beer glasses. I was happy though to enter the building and actually see a play, as it was going to be The Seagull, the climax of the Young Chekhov season visiting from Chichester.
This series of Chekhov’s three early plays has been deservedly lauded for its suave, cultured acting, and at the most basic level I’ve been struck by how all the actors have spoken audibly, mellifluously and in a common register for the play – something that isn’t always the rule at the National any more. At some recent evenings there, feeling that the actors are often gabbling, shouting, or both at once, I’ve wondered whether it’s my hearing that’s at fault. But it was by accident that I found I’d booked for a ‘captioned’ performance, consisting of projections of the entire text from small screens both stage right and stage left – you might call them ‘side-titles’.
So much has been written and said (often by me) about the adoption of surtitles in opera that I can’t believe I’m going to say some more about this. But after a couple of decades, most opera-goers would agree that seeing the words being sung has heightened their enjoyment of the artform. There are a few differences between opera titles and what happened at this captioned performance, however. Opera libretti allow for a great deal of repetition, so we don’t have that much text to read (or ignore). And given that the majority of surtitles are translations, the writers of surtitles have the leeway to abbreviate the text – which they do with great skill, at the Royal Opera House for instance. But seeing Chekhov’s entire script (in David Hare’s enjoyably clear version) fleeting by at the edge of both eyeballs was difficult to ignore. I tried to listen rather than read, but at times I couldn’t stop myself from watching the text, even though I had no need to do so. At one point I worried that Anna Chancellor, playing the over-the-top actress, Arkadina, had been thrown by reading her own surtitles when facing side-stage – but perhaps it was just part of her fabulously dotty performance. Since part of the play references modern developments in the theatre which seem rather mad, it’s interesting to imagine what Chekhov would have thought of this situation. But he (a doctor in real life with a compassionate view of physical frailty, as his plays constantly remind us) would perhaps have approved of the National’s explanation that captioning is offered to help ‘people who are deaf, deafened or hard of hearing’. Today there are ever more of us in those latter two categories, and not just oldies like myself.