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The German Octopus Speaks a Universal Language

Date: Sep 08, 2015

Do we really need to understand the language in a play?


Actor Fabian Hinrichs is fumbling to pull on an octopus costume.

Berlin's Volksbühne Theatre stage is drenched from an indoor rainstorm that just ended. The audience members, who moments before were invited to the stage to splash about in the water, are now returning to their seats, laughing and chattering and damp.

Hinrichs, though, is still up there. He's already soaking wet, and more water trickles on him from the rafters. It makes becoming an octopus even more difficult. The costume, replete with tentacles and suckers, resists every yank and tug.

Mind you, I'm not entirely sure what's happening. The show I'm seeing – Kill Your Darlings: The Streets of Berladelphia – is performed entirely in German, which I don't speak. Still, I am keenly aware of what this poor actor is going through. And I can sense that the rest of the room is noticing his struggle to get dressed.

Eventually, the exuberance of the rainstorm is mingled with the sorrow of a man who is failing and failing and failing. His effort is somehow both ridiculous and profound.

And he cannot catch a break. Once Hinrichs is finally in his costume, he slips and falls in the rain puddles on the stage. Over and over again, he ends up back on the ground, undone by the very water that made everyone so happy a moment ago.

The longer he suffers, the less the audience laughs. Eventually, we cross the razor's edge from comedy to tragedy. This is clear to me, even if I do not understand a word of the show.

And that has been an awakening for me. Untethered from a familiar language, I found Kill Your Darlings no less powerful, and I left the Volksbühne wondering why I don't experiment with more foreign language work. The octopus crisis was theatrical heroin, and I was eager for another fix.

But how to get it? Supertitles have become standard at the opera and for most international touring theatre. The barrage of text can be exhausting, but I have typically committed to reading every word for fear I won't "understand." But does this make text unfairly dominant?


With Kill Your Darlings, the exuberant energy and fierce commitment from the performers were so palpable that I didn't need words to stay invested. Without an ear fixed on dialogue, the design, direction, and performances became more prominent to me. As one sense dulled, the rest of them sharpened.

Theatrical adventures like these need not be performed wholly without a net. The Berliner Ensemble's all-German version of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night was as visually engaging as Kill Your Darlings, and the familiar story gave me a textual security blanket. That freed me to enjoy an uproarious production set on a rusty, rotating tugboat, featuring a rockabilly drag king jerking off, disco and rap numbers performed by the cast, and an Olivia channeling Norma Desmond.

Once again, I was liberated. I let go of "knowing" every word of the play and just reveled in the understanding that was created through production. Relationships between the characters were clear. Emotional catharsis was achieved.

Now I wonder: How many incredible shows have I missed because I've let language get in the way?


Follow Nicole at @MildlyBitter. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Photos by Thomas Aurin. Top photo: Fabian Hinrichs (dressed as an octopus) and the Kill Your Darlings cast..