The Case for Multilingual Theatre in post-Brexit Britain: "Mrs Green" Review
Undone Theatre Artistic Director Gabriele Uboldi reviews Teatro Multilingue’s slick and thought-provoking production, which mixes English, Italian, and French on the Hope Theatre’s stage.
Teatro Multilingue’s mission is as simple as it is exciting: they create theatre that features multiple languages—and you don’t need to speak all of them to understand what’s happening onstage. I was lucky enough to catch their show Mrs Green at the Hope Theatre, after it toured Italy and other cities in England.
Mrs Green is the story of Isabella, a young Italian woman studying at LAMDA, and Jacques, a French intern working at a London bank. The two meet and fall in love just before the Brexit vote, which will inevitably affect their personal lives: as the change in economic relations between the EU and the UK comes into effect, Jacques must relocate to the continent to keep his job and bring his relationship with Isabella to an end.
The simple plot is enriched by an colourful political analysis, cleverly told through snippets of speeches and slogans. If, on the one hand, Cameron, May, and Johnson’s voices remind us of the Leave rhetoric, the play’s characters hang a series of posters during the transitions, reading: ‘Britain is stronger in Europe’, ‘Brexshit’, and other messages representing the Remain side. The message is clear: the majority of Brits don’t like immigrants, and the era of free movement is over even for more privileged, white Europeans like Jacques and Isabella.
"Does an economy always have to rely on underpaid foreign labour?"
The treatment of the economic impact of Brexit is where the play is at its strongest, and where a potentially simplistic message of acceptance gets more complicated. While the consequences of Brexit on the protagonists’ personal lives are equally taxing, Jacques’ fate—which is tied to a secure job in finance—is perhaps brighter than Isabella’s, who, towards the end, dares to ask: ‘Does an economy always have to rely on underpaid foreign labour?’. The inevitable, affirmative answer to Isabella’s question suddenly casts the character of Mrs Green, Isabella’s landlady, in a more sinister light. While Mrs Green is a combative Remainer and a lover of continental Europe, she eschews acknowledging her role in exploiting Isabella, who is simply looking for a better future.
But what really makes this production unique is that the story is told in three different languages: English, French and Italian. While I speak both Italian and English, and could therefore understand two thirds of the play, the story was cleverly constructed so that it was balanced and easy to follow. Even during sections in French, the action was clear and I even found myself enjoying attempting to understand a language that was foreign to me.
This sense of solidarity was surely strengthened by a tacit understanding that most of the audience—myself included—must have felt the recent and concrete effects of the hostile environment
There is something that feels obvious and yet somewhat revolutionary in this use of different languages on a British stage. After all, as the Migrants in Theatre Movement reminds us, up to 37% of Londoners are first-generation migrants, and Mrs Green’s mixture of Italian, French and English seemed to me like a more accurate representation of what the streets of London actually sound like than most of what is being put on on English stages. This was reflected amongst the diverse audience, who I could hear speak different languages as they filled up the sold out theatre—there was a lovely feeling of shared understanding and experience, with some laughing at a joke in French, while others waited for it to be translated in Italian. This sense of solidarity was surely strengthened by a tacit understanding that most of the audience—myself included—must have felt the recent and concrete effects of the hostile environment, as Brexit came in full swing since the beginning of last year.
Mrs Green is a thought-provoking piece of theatre not only because it forces us to reckon with a very recent piece of political history, but also because it adopts the perspective of those who, like Jacques and Isabella, have experienced the consequences of Brexit in the first person. And sure, the play’s message may be simple; Teatro Multilingue may fail to extend the representation of European migrants to those who are not straight, or white. Nonetheless, at the core of this production is an attempt to give a voice to those who may want to use a language other than English on a British stage. Judging by the enthusiastic reaction of the audience, I would say that Teatro Multilingue’s ambitious attempt is ultimately successful, and perhaps one from which British theatre can learn a thing or two.