Pardon the French

Peter Burrell-Sander didn’t need a translator to understand Je Ne Sais Quoi

Peter Burrell-Sander didn't need a translator to understand Je Ne Sais Quoi

Photography by Alex Smiles

Alana Cherry and Victoria Zerbst’s bilingual composition, Je Ne Sais Quoi is a pleasant experience. The first act was laced liberally with comedic intent, and the second replaced much of that comedy with a poignancy that left me pondering the intent of the play long after leaving the theatre. It boasted a small cast of talented performers playing roles that, refreshingly, were by no means clear in their villain/victim dichotomies. Yes, there’s a character you’ll dislike more than the others but you won’t leave hating him. Instead, you’ll leave with a new perspective.

It’s the tale of four people, not quite two couples, adrift in the sea of Paris and their own feelings. Set predominantly in cafes, they attempt to learn about each other, themselves and the nature of relationships, with limited success. It’s sad, and introspective, but so much more than a tale of woe.

Let’s get it out of the way, a lot of this play is in French. There’s no denying it. Full on, rapid-fire, French. This is going to be what most potential audience members might be worried about, after all how can you enjoy a play you can’t understand?

Well, fear not, because the play is in no way unintelligible to a non-Francophone. I marvelled at the fact that, even with absolutely no knowledge as to the exact meaning of the words (and a few subtitle hiccups), the performances of all involved actors nonetheless made the storyline clear and accessible.

After all, you don’t need to understand the language of a bickering couple to see that they are bickering. The passion of the performers conveys everything you really need to know, the subtitles are an extra.

Rather than the sometimes-masturbatory writing of some “edgy” productions, this play’s introspection was simply another way for the audience to connect with the universality of the character’s experiences. The play was informative without being dogmatic, moralising without being heavy-handed pedagogy. It’s themes were familiar, and yet the setting and presentation of made it feel new, and atypical, especially for a student audience.

It makes no bones about its highbrow nature, admitting in the opening performance that it’s strewn with largely unnecessary but nonetheless pleasing literary references. No knowledge of arcane literary concepts is however required to enjoy the experience.

Je Ne Sais Quoi is at times subtler than you might expect, but this is part of its charm. It offers no sweeping answers, no great statements as to how the world operates. Yet it tells a story, and tells it in a way which is interesting, and unexpected. Yet the most resounding part of the play was the performances of the actors and actresses, whose purpose and passion meant their story could reach you, no matter what language you speak.