A Language Barrier

Yesterday I mentioned what is probably the most impressive part of the show War Horse: the amazingly life-like horse puppets.  While I am still undecided on my overall opinion of the show, there was another aspect of it that I thought was handled beautifully and which I think is worth a post here.  That aspect is how they handled the question of language.

There are three different languages spoken by the characters of the show: English, German, and French.  While I can’t speak for the rest of the audience, this particular show-goer speaks only one of those.  In order to include the audience, all of the actors spoke English, albeit with the accents of their supposed country.  Most of the time this doesn’t matter; during the entire first act, we only see the British side of the story, and even when we switch to the other side of the fighting, they are usually only interacting with others who speak their language.

The brilliant part of the language question is how the actors portray the barrier when they interact across languages.  The beginning of the second act starts with a German officer shouting a tirade (in accented English) at a captured British officer.  The response from the British officer?  “I don’t speak German!”  The scene continues in such a way that it is clear the two captured British soldiers and several German soldiers can’t understand each other.

There isn’t an actual language barrier, but the script is written to convey one, and the acting is done accordingly.  The first time, it took me by surprise, but it worked well.  Much like with the horses and their puppeteers, I quickly forgot they were acting and believed they truly couldn’t understand each other.