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Saer Doliau, Finborough Theatre

Gwenlyn Parry

Directed by Aled Pedrick
Pros: A unique theatrical experience with a skilled cast and a captivating plot. 
Cons: The entire play is in Welsh, and even with the subtitles it can be difficult to follow and demands a lot of attention!
Our Verdict: Despite the language barrier, the play is really fun to watch – the cast is excellent, and the “thriller” style of the script will keep you on edge!
Courtesy of the Finborough Theatre
I was, admittedly, more than a little wary about attending the Finborough’s current production of Saer Doliau. When I went to check out the theatre’s website, I was disconcerted to find that the play would be performed in its original Welsh, with English subtitles. I’ve only seen one other production that made the same choice; an Italian opera several years ago. I found it hard to focus on the vast stage and the subtitles projected far above the action at the same time – I always felt I was missing actions or words since I was having to constantly reassign my attention to different areas. So I went into Saer Doliau expecting to find it incomprehensible, and worried I would be unable to see many of the good elements of the show due to my own inability to focus on anything beyond my struggle to grasp what would be going on linguistically.
Having now come out of the theatre, I can happily say that the one poorly subtitled performance from my past does not make all subtitled pieces of theatre less than worthwhile. Despite the inevitable difficulty of viewing a work of art in a foreign language, Saer Doliau was a very valuable and rewarding excursion outside my comfort zone. The space is small, so split focus isn’t much of an issue. The subtitles, helpfully large and color-coded, are broadcast on a large screen center stage, directly above where practically all of the action takes place. Whilst sometimes I felt, unavoidably, that I missed a few things in translation, overall the language barrier was handled expertly – I’d just recommend not sitting in the front row, or you’ll have a stiff neck from staring up at the screen all night!
Saer Doliau is the story of Ifans (or Evans, according to subtitles), an isolated doll mender (Doll Mender is the English translation of the title), whose only regular conversations are with his dolls or on the phone with his boss. Ifans is grumpy, racist (he refuses to mend black dolls), and paranoid (he believes someone mysterious lives in the stock cellar and wreaks havoc on the shop when he is not around). Things change quickly when a girl claiming to be a company auditor arrives, and begins to question his methods and abilities. Shaking things up herself, she also brings in a juvenile apprentice, and together they put a wrecking ball through Ifans’ carefully constructed environment.
I won’t say too much about the plot, other than to say that it’s a satisfying intrigue that unfolds with excitement and twists, with a lot of questions left lingering, but in just the right kind of way.
The small cast is excellent; funny, passionate, and they sounded beautiful, even if I didn’t understand the words. I often found that for periods of time I could watch them without referring to the subtitles and understand from their gestures and tone what was going on. This must be a nod to director Aled Pedrick as well, who clearly understands how to keep an audience interested regardless of their comprehension of the words used.
The set, shared with London Wall in which Saer Doliau runs with in repertory for the next few weeks is simple, but functional, with an appropriate clutter of dolls and tools. I do think, however, that the production might have benefitted from a little more floor room than was available.
I feel really grateful to have seen this show – I am constantly finding exceptions to rules I thought I had about my tastes and preferences regarding theatre, and can tick off another thanks to the Finborough and Invertigo Theatre Company. I seriously recommend you don’t let any anxiety about attending a show in another language keep you away from this one – you won’t regret giving it a shot!
Please feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below!

Saer Doliau runs at the Finborough Theatre until 19th February 2013.

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