Friday, 26 October 2012

Marat/Sade – Schaubühne

[also: On Directors' Theatre]

As we know, German theatre has some ways of doing things differently to British theatre. As may also have been observed before, I have quite a lot of time for those ways. That said, such a wide spread as to be as meaningless a label as “British Theatre” – there are perhaps some broad national characteristics, but plenty of exceptions too; plus a lot of nuance and difference between types. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the primary difference between British and German theatre is The Position of The Writer. Although it was pointed out to me in Poland last week that the difference between Germany and America is infinitely more pronounced as far as position-of-writer and position-of-director goes. Go on, how many American theatre directors can you name? (Now minus Robert Wilson. Now how many? Who directed the premières of Arthur Miller’s plays? Or David Mamet’s?)

The chief difference between a “director-led” theatre and a “writer-led” theatre appears to be the way a production looks. How much “Directors’ Theatre” is actually “Designers’ Theatre” might make for an interesting discussion one day. In writer’s theatre – so the old fashioned view goes – a play set in a living room tends to wind up being acting on a stage-set that ostensibly resembles a living room. In director’s theatre – so the caricature runs – a play set in a living room will end up set on a vast muddy plain with all the actors suspended on meat hooks above it. Of course, the same could happen in “Writers’ Theatre”, the the writer would have had to have described it precisely so in the stage directions, and the director would have to be carrying out her wishes to the letter. The difference, then, is that in director’s the director has to bring a concept to the text in the same way that the author did/does in “writers’ theatre”.

Indeed, in the past week of my travels I think I’ve defended both Scenes From an Execution and Three Sisters from various mainlanders who’d seen them who were disparaging them for not having concepts. And, it’s a fair point. They were both essentially beautifully made serve-the-text productions with some beautiful ideas about stagings. They didn’t have *concepts*. “But the concept is in the play” I try arguing. They don’t buy it. That’s fine, I guess. I still like *both* schools of thought when the productions are that good.

I find the two labels to be needlessly confrontational and binary, and I’d like to hope that they are on their way out in Britain, even amidst a lot of confusion over whether, say, Benedict Andrews’s Three Sisters or Sean Holmes’s Desire Under The Elms are examples of Directors’ Theatre or not.

And so we come to Marat/Sade at the Schaubühne. Now, for my money, the Schaubühne doesn’t really produce that much “concept” director’s theatre. But it isn’t a writers’ theatre or an actors’ theatre either. On a snippy day, I might suggest it’s a furniture salesman’s theatre, given the Elle Decoration-type lifestyle-envy a lot of Ostermeier’s sets induce. But I suppose in the general run of things it’s more German and directorsy than not.

Taking all this into account, Peter Kleinert’s new production of Marat/Sade is an interesting proposition. It seems to be neither writer’s theatre nor director’s theatre. That is to say, approximately fifty per cent of Peter Weiss’s suggestions/stage-directions have been ignored. But they haven’t really be replaced with anything either.

Ok, that’s unfair. Despite the enormous title of the original – retained in full here – the Persecution and Assassination of Jean Paul Marat in this new production doesn’t really seem to be being performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton but by students of the School of Performing Arts »Ernst Busch« Berlin and members of the Schaubühne ensemble. Actually, I have to say, this fact – another example of young people being given stage of a big theatre, cf. the Lyric’s Morning – along with the rather cool trailer was part of what drew me to the production.

However, dramaturgically, the co-option of the acting students here serves a more annoying purpose. Now, I have to confess, despite having seen it a couple of times (although sadly not in Anthony Neilson’s Mail-baiting RSC production last year), I’m not sure I even fully get the point of Marat/Sade as written. I mean, it’s sort of meta-theatrical – i.e. it makes a big thing of the play being performed Live! before-your-very-eyes. But then, at the same time, the cast (at least as far as the text is concerned) also have to be doing some totally method, invisible, naturalistic acting as 18th Century asylum patients. I think the play probably had a very specific reason to exist in the 60s when it was written, and it became a big hit both in Germany and in Britain as part of Peter Brook’s famous Theatre of Cruelty season for the RSC. I imagine its strange sidelong atomisation of revolutionary politics made a lot more sense in Europe in the decade heading toward 1968, the Paris riots, the RAF and the Prague spring, although I don’t think I’ve fully grasped the precise symbolism of this critique being framed as written and directed by de Sade or why his cast are insane.

Kleinert, however, has staged the play solely as an exercise in proving why the play is no longer relevant and doesn’t or can’t speak to our own times. The Ernst Busch students here instead of playing Inmates are essentially playing themselves, or everystudents. I confess I even (surprisingly) found myself missing Chris Haydon’s detailed, psychological performance as the depressive-playing-Marat in Cambridge ADC’s ‘01 production. (It’s not that his acting was especially stellar; but there was a real commitment to the premise of the role and detail in it. And plainly it was also memorable.) That layer of meaning and detail has been totally steamrollered here.

In this, I suppose Kleinert is introducing a concept at the expense of the play; in much the same way that Frank Castorf’s incredibly long Nach Moskau! Nach Moskau! machine-guns Chekhov’s Three Sisters in the water for five hours. However, where Castorf is at least thoroughgoing, serious and critical, Kleinert seems content to be flippant and non-committal. There are not one but two different planted interruptions from the audience: one man storms out, shouting angrily at the cast, before taking off a wig to reveal that he was an actor all along (!), while a woman shouts occasional objections about the text and revolution in general from the centre of the back row.

This is meta-theatricality as zero-sum-game. The sight of a production bashing its head, repeatedly, hard, against its own postmodernism. And its politics seem particularly uninspired and uninspiring.

Thesis: re-casting any random mob from an extant text as the Occupy Movement is proof of a production’s reactionary tendencies. Discuss.

Of course there is not only room, but a need for critiques of the Occupy Movement. This isn’t one of them. At the same time, the production demonstrates the limits of its horizons by discussing “whether revolution is possible now” without a single reference to Tunisa, Egypt, Libya, or Syria. And all the balaclavas worn are black – although, given the direction of the production, I can’t help thinking that actually its co-option of Pussy Riot would have just felt like another umpteen nails in its coffin.

Need I say that there are also plenty of likeable moments in the staging? Nothing especially original – ensemble dunking their heads in buckets of red, white and blue paint; stripping off for showers on stage; aggressive live music played on bass and electronic drum pads; revolutionary songs in the style of Rage Against the Machine (I would question what decade they even think they’re living in, but having now spent a few days listening to German mainstream commercial radio, I realise that they are at least entitled to that confusion) – but lots that still works. The young actors are clearly talented – the permanent members of the Schaubühne ensemble don’t stand out like sore thumbs of talent.

But at the end of the day, you do wonder what has actually been achieved. I left the theatre mildly irritated that people had dedicated time to making this theatrical brakes-on statement. “Nothing can change, resistance is futile, or childish” this Marat/Sade seemed to say, its complacent arms folded, sat in its comfy space in West Berlin shopping street Kurfürstendamm. In that moment, even a meticulously-faithful-to-the-script production of a play about a boarding school by David Hare, directed by Jeremy Herrin, might have seemed more revolutionary.


Tom Hughes said...

Thanks for this.

I wondered whether the production was being informed by the Ernst Busch protests at this year's Theatertreffen. Details here:

Which would be another fascinating example of the Schaubuhne referring extremely directing to its local environment (I hear that Volksfiend does something similar about Kurfurstendamm).

Andrew Haydon said...

Ooh. Good call. Possibly.

Which does make it more interesting.

But, again; at the same time as being hyperlocal (to nick Fierce's coinage), it strikes me as being a bit, well, dramaturgically sloppy. i.e.

"We're doing a play about protest...",

"Oh. The Ernst Busch lot had a protest recently, didn't they?",

"So they did, let's do it with them."

I dunno, maybe I'm being a bit harsh, but it does sometimes feel that the least successful thing about the Schaubühne is its grasp of politics. Or at least, I see things differently to Ostermeier and his dramaturgs (to the extent, that when he starts talking about his rationales for doing Hedda G. I have to put my fingers in my ears and go "La la la" so he doesn't spoil the production for me... :-) )