No Hablo Ingles

It's the largest arts festival in the world – unsurprisingly, it attracts a few visitors from overseas. Lyle Brennan hunts for comedy that isn't lost in translation

feature (edinburgh) | Read in About 4 minutes
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Louise Reay
Published 03 Aug 2015

Of all the responses a stand-up might expect when shushing an audience member, few could be as baffling as this: “Sorry, I'm translating for my friend.” It's an exchange I've witnessed more than once at the Fringe; hang around and you might hear something similar.

Perhaps it's unsurprising given how The World's Biggest Arts Festival prides itself on its internationalist, come-one-come-all credentials, and rightly so. But just how far can that inclusiveness extend to comedy crowds when the language of humour is so dense with colloquialisms and complex double meanings?

The last time the Fringe Society took stock of audience members, it found nine per cent came from outside the UK. For any visitor whose English is anything less than idiomatic, that bulging brochure—particularly the purple pages, dominated by stand-up and sketch—becomes dramatically diminished.

So what’s left for them? At present, not a lot. But there are a few hints of what a less anglophone-specific type of comedy might look like. Whereas last year we had polyglot Eddie Izzard championing the English-language debuts of stand-ups from mainland Europe, this time—at the other end of the stardom spectrum—physical comedian Louise Reay is attempting "comedy sans frontieres" of a different kind. Her first hour, It’s Only Words, is a mostly improvised clown show performed entirely in Chinese. And as the tagline promises, “You’ll understand it, but you won’t know why.”

Despite studying the language and living in Beijing, Reay found she struggled to pick up on non-verbal cues from the locals. “I realised I had spent eight years learning vocabulary,” she says, “but it was never really about the words.” So here she is with a performance based on everything else – an ambitious experiment which she hopes will prove a great leveller among audiences.

“There's huge tension in the UK about the way we feel about language,” she says. “We are angry if immigrants don't learn English well enough, yet we're too embarrassed to practise our own GCSE French when we go abroad.”

Her mission to make comedy out of “universal human experiences rather than national differences” has won the support of the Chinese government, with the Confucius Institute bankrolling her run, but if that noble sentiment doesn’t do it for you, Reay adds: “It's really fun to listen to Chinese... it's such a special and historical language yet it sounds like a pin-ball machine sometimes."

Character comic Emma Sidi attempts a comparable feat in a standout sketch from her debut. It's a talk on feminist icons, delivered with zeal by a lecturer holding forth in Spanish. It's no sweat for a woman who once wrote and performed a show for locals in Mexico, but by the end of it you'll be left wondering when your own vocabulary surpassed "dos cervezas". Part of it is down to what Sidi calls “the terrifying power of Western culture on the world”, which she admits throws up some handy global references.

“The idea sort of emerged the first time a Mexican friend corrected my pronunciation of 'Harry Potter',” she says. “Eventually I managed it: 'Harrrrr-ee Potd-erh'. I realised that I was being aggressively re-taught my own language.”

Add to that the surprising universality of tone (bitching, she says, sounds the same in any language) and suddenly you’re communicating. A bit of clowning doesn’t hurt, either, though Sidi says, “I try to avoid too much show-and-tell-style physicality” – before conceding: “There are some moments of pretty crude sex moves I've added in to decorate the chat.”

This, of course, brings us to the obvious point that mime can work almost anywhere. The festival is rarely short of comics who can raise a laugh without uttering a word, with Trygve Wakenshaw foremost among them this year.

Maybe this calls for a club night designed for our phrasebook-wielding friends. After all, don’t they deserve something funnier than the Tattoo?