“So, it'll be a Sunday afternoon. What show from Theatertreffen shall we stick on at Potsdamer Platz?”
“Oh, let's give them the 3hr40 non-naturalistic staging of theatertexts about natural disasters.”
Das Werk is possibly one of the best things I've ever seen done in a theatre. Except, a) I didn't see it in a theatre, b) I only saw about half of it, & c) I understood slightly less of the text than normal – well, I got that it was about an accident in an industrial plant, and The Workers, which turns out was pretty much the size of it, but at the time I felt less like I was following it than seeing it whizz past in front of my eyes. But, blimey, what a sight.
And what a way of dealing with text. This is what was really exciting. I've had a stab at reading Elfriede Jelinek's texts/plays online and haven't had a lot of luck imagining how on earth they'd work on stage.
This arrangement of three of her texts apparently owes quite an artistic debt to the most celebrated interpreter/director of her works, the late Einar Schleef, whose Ein Sportstück (that linked clip really worth a watch – though possibly with the sound down) still stands as a landmark in German stage history.
Perhaps unwisely, given that I was outdoors and armed with my cameraphone, I've uploaded a bunch of footage to YouTube. Annoyingly, it doesn't even give anything like a sense of what it was like watching the work on a Sunday afternoon in a public space – which in turn was doubtless no substitute for being in the actual theatre. But here, third hand, it does at least remove a bit of a burden from my powers of description, which I'm probably going to need for the Schaubühne's Die Heimkehr des Odysseus [review currently forthcoming].
The first video (top) contains many of the elements that recurred throughout Das Werk: stamping, speaking in chorus, cut-up/sampled text, mass panting, high voices, the musicality of speaking...
This second – I did a bad job of recording the best bits, getting distracted by watching them - captures a late bit of a section of some declaiming over singing...
Here again, different ways the chorus was used to deliver the text. The thing I found incredibly hard to remember (no wonder German critics read the texts before they see the shows) was how none of this was “organic” to the text. And yet, how much it felt as if this was how the text was meant to be done – like it was “serving the text” perfectly (which of course it was, but at the same time, as far as I'm aware, it's not legislated for at all)
One bit I missed filming wasn't a million mile from this performance of Einstürzende Neubauten's Was Ist Ist:
The piece ended with some beautiful singing, like something out of Mahler or Strauss:
The second piece, Im Bus, deals with an accident during the building of a U-Bahn station.
The stage is a mess of debris. The few performers have shaken flour over themselves, daubed their faces, poured water over one another, have smoked, used a smoke machine.
Although this was possibly the end of Das Werk.
Then three curious refugees from some sort of Brecht piece have turned up to deliver some more text. This little intervention might be the whole of Im Bus. In which case, it's about ten minutes long and this is the final fifth...
The final piece, Ein Sturz (A Fall), was commissioned by Schauspiel Köln, and is a text about the library that collapsed in Köln overnight.
Annoyingly I had to leave to get to Schaubühne before it got really good, but it had just started to get messy as I was leaving...
Again, the division of the text amongst people and, here, objects – large amounts of the text spews forth from laptops or over loudspeakers – is little short of revolutionary to my mind; although I'm well aware it's been going on here for donkey's years and is nothing to get excited about.
On the other hand, the little mostly naked woman running around as “Earth” is possibly an eco-catastrophe all of her own. I'm all for metaphor and everything, but this one errs toward massive overstatement.
For all that, I suspect the two and half hours or so that I saw of this show will probably inform the way I think about how text is treated on stage for the rest of my life.