Shakespeare in Norwegian – a Self-Experiment

Some theater critics recently used to say that Shakespeare’s theater predominantly depends on its language and not on the storyline. What supposedly is outstanding about his work are not the invention of round characters or compelling plots but solemly the diversity and vigor of his language skills. It has been said that every play generally contains the same flaws, similar motives and figures just in new disguise or even worse – that the stories are just an excuse in order to use such multifaceted language, such memorable words.

Amplifying those standpoints a little further Shakespeare’s uniqueness might consequently be lost with every translation, with every performance in another language. That would be one hell of a crisis! A huge part of non-native speaking actors, readers and theater lovers would therefore miss out on what apparently is the only reason Shakespeare is considered one of the greatest playwrights of all times.

But is it true? Of course no one completely insane would doubt Shakespeare’s speech virtuosity. But reducing his dramatic and playwriting abilities to some side effect that just happened to come along? I tried to find out myself by attending the current performance of “Othello” at the Nationaltheater. In Norwegian langauage and without even being a native speaker of Norwegian. Twice the challenge for me – and for Shakespeare.

Luckily it turned out that all theater critics can forget about their theories. Yes, it might be true that one misses out on a great deal of silver-tongued remarks which definitely is a pity. Nevertheless Shakespeare continues to be a revelation. Othello’s storyline of malicious intrigue and vicious scheme, of human greed, ambition, racism and jealousy remains a timeless piece of art no matter in what language it is performed.

The moorish general Othello is deceived by his liuetnant Iago and falsely convinced of his wives’ unfaithfulness. Henrik Rafaelsen playing Iago still casts a spell over everyone in the audience even though he betrays and curses in Norwegian and not in English. But his vivid gestures, his spitting, his horse voice explain more than only words on a page could do. When agreeing that Shakespeare’s genius is only encapsulated in his words it meant that – at least here in Oslo – we would be restricted to the pages of a book, to the library, to our imagination. My home is my castle. Fair enough.

But we would miss out on Serge von Arx scenography of oppressive objects hanging above the stage, moving closer to each other until they almost touch in the moment of greatest treachery. We would miss out on Magnus Roosmann being a Swedish Othello, a foreigner to his Norwegian subjects. And we would miss out on the chance to see Runar Hodne’s personal interpretation and realization of human mendacity and gullibility; the chance of going out, of sitting down in one of Norway’s most acknowledged theaters and enjoy 90 minutes of dedicated actors, intense moments of lightness, of relief and upheaval followed by burdensome darkness in the human mind – and on a Norwegian stage.

Othello from Nationaltheatret on Vimeo.

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