The Burgtheater’s (im)Perfect Crib

Real time surtitles in German and English now make it possible for non-German speakers and the hard of hearing to enjoy Vienna’s greatest stage. But maybe you don’t need them.

By reputation, Vienna’s venerable Burgtheater stands alone, the first and oldest national theater in the Geman speaking world and long the most admired. But for new arrivals, and any who haven’t yet mastered the German language, all this has been out of reach.

This is about to change: as of January, the Burgtheater has been encouraging non-German speakers and anyone with a hearing impairment to use a new mobile application, Burgtheater Prompt, that provides German and English surtitles, white on black, that can be read on your phone during the performance. You just put your phone on airplane mode and join the theater’s own wifi network – and the text appears on your screen.

Currently available only at selected seats for the performances of Die Backhen and Faust, the theater plans to expand the service over time. It’s a move in line with European trends, writes Der Standard: Ensembles are increasingly international, and the resulting linguistic diversity and surtitles even appear on stage, as they did for Vögel (Birds) at the Akademietheater. Since Martin Kušej took over direction of Burgtheater last year, he has looked for ways to reflect the cosmopolitan quality and cultural diversity of Vienna. Having said that, implementing multilingualism is challenging, providing surtitles to plays complicated, as the technicalities themselves can disrupt the experience.

So we decided to see for yourselves. We went to the Burgtheater, and tested their new service at a performance of Faust.  This is what we found:

Goethe’s Faust with surtitles

Using Burgtheater Prompt is simple: You just hold the phone in your hand, looking up and down while you watch the play. This is a challenge with Faust, one of the most famous works of German literature. Written two hundred years ago by the great Johann Wolfgang v. Goethe, Faust still resonates with readers and draws in audiences in the 21th century as it did in the past. The central character of the title,  an educated everyman, neither hero nor villain and disenchanted with life, tries to find fulfillment in physical pleasure. Faust’s hedonism is helped along by Mephisto, the devil, who embodies all the nihilism, lust, and pointless destruction that goes on in the world. It is a classic tragedy, powerful, poetic and moving.

As for the mobile app: We quickly got tired of the constant back and forth, and with aching neck, decided it was better not to lose sight of the actors. The actress Bibiana Beglau inhabits Mephisto with boundless energy; you can’t keep your eyes off this self-indulgent androgynous creature, head-to-toe in black. The theatrical representation of disillusionment, the apocalyptic setting – at various times a techno rave, a sex orgy, and a battle arena – will leave you ignoring your phone.

Faust is looking for the ultimate kick, stated its director Kušej, whether the thrill of terror, power, sex, or drugs – and that is better onstage, than by the words on your small screen. You might end up checking a few lines here and there, but best to remain, overall, immersed in the play.

So what we learned, in the end, was something else: That it’s possible to enjoy a play, even if we do not understand all of it. Theatre is much more than words. The aesthetics, the costumes, the movement, the stage set, the lights, the tone of voice and music all communicate splendidly.

So Burgtheater Prompt is a great tool during the play to maximize your understanding. But a little preparation could contribute as much or more. Operagoers have long been in the habit of familiarizing themselves with the characters and plots in advance. Doing a little homework, a bit of reading, might feel too studenty, but trust us. It will go a long way.

(Foto: (c) Matthias Horn / Burgtheater)

Jusztina Barna
Jusztina Barna attended a bilingual English-Hungarian high school where her love for literature and linguistics was planted, further sprouting once she gained an English degree. In Vienna since 2016, she also studied German and Business Management and is currently preoccupied with the human side of technology and digital exclusion.

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