tue 18/06/2024

English, Festival of Voice, Wales Millennium Centre review – lost in language | reviews, news & interviews

English, Festival of Voice, Wales Millennium Centre review – lost in language

English, Festival of Voice, Wales Millennium Centre review – lost in language

Unique interactive performance explores the privilege of mother tongue

Jonny Cotsen (pictured third from left) is a thoughtful and engaging hostToby Farrow, National Theatre Wales

Despite the Welsh repute for singing, the Festival of Voice in Cardiff has always been more than just music.

Indeed, on the Friday evening, Welsh/Cornish pop enigma Gwenno was appearing alongside the gloriously titled one woman show Lovecraft (Not the Sex Shop in Cardiff) and English, an interactive theatre experience on language in Britain.

An apt subject for its audience, judging by the conversations flowing as we waited in the forgivable summer dusk. There’s a curiosity on the show’s content, with vague promises on building a contemporary Babel. English is a co-production between National Theatre Wales and Manchester-based Quarantine, a renowned innovative theatre group, so there were clear expectations from attendees.

As the doors opened and we made our way into the Millennium Centre’s Dance House, tonight’s Babel was revealed. Seating on four sides, with two big screens at either end; in the centre of the room, a collection of props left haphazardly, including a small potted tree, uninflated balloons, and a curiously big box. Our host for the evening, Jonny Cotsen, held conversations with some as they sat down.

Jonny Cotsen hosting English in the Millennium Centre

Once settled, Jonny explained the concept for the show: as a profoundly deaf man, he has always had a unique perspective on the liberties afforded to those who can talk without issue. Being able to speak English in the UK is a privilege, unrestricted from expressing yourself and learning from others. 350 English phrases had been gathered and would be slowly projected on the screens; if they stirred a reaction, you could raise your hand and we would discuss it.

It’s high concept, and unfortunately, that most British of drawbacks - public shyness - held back much of the first half. Without it clearly explained that anyone could pause the screen, not just Jonny, and without adequate icebreaking, awkward silences were commonplace (ironically, “awkward silences” was one of the topics no-one jumped in on).

It was left to Jonny to anchor the show, and as a raconteur, he is magnetically fascinating. He’s warm and witty, with a lifetime of experiences and contemplations. A childhood of therapy taught him the mechanics of speech, but admits he still feels uncomfortable vocalising his thoughts. Indeed, it is his fear of not being understood, and the unusual pronunciation of some phrases, that succinctly demonstrate the luck of being confident in the language around you.

Certain phrases drew random thoughts, while others had planned routines, some of which were supremely effective. In particular, for “Empathy”, Jonny began handing out balloons to the audience, asking them to blow them up while he described his family tree in great detail. Distractions soon built up, as pumping music and balloon squeaks increased over Jonny’s voice, until it was impossible to stay engaged. When it finally stopped, Jonny was left trying to communicate by only mouthing words. A room full of people, all isolated and unable to converse.

Jonny Cotsen during English by National Theatre Wales and Quarantine

Jonny later asked questions via pen and pad, of which everyone responded on their own. “Where are you from?”, “Where was your great great grandfather from”, “Where is home?”. This mass exchange brought some wonderful, inventive responses, with a special mention to the people who claimed their second languages were “dancing” and “Die Hard quotes”. The audience was finally comfortable in their role, and from here the conversation flowed from person to person – thoughts on language, debates on Spanish grammar, questions about foil.

The nature of the show meant we made it to the mid “F”s by the end of the time limit, with the following day’s performance picking up from the same point. It’s a shame that the most engaging interactive elements came nearer the end, as it took the audience a long while to understand how to participate. Then again, maybe that’s the point; maybe we’re used to having everything explained in a language we understand, and this was how it feels to learn through assimilation. When the show finished, the conversations flowed between strangers once more, only this time the subjects were far more profound. You could definitely call that a success.

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