Wednesday 24 October 2012

Reise durch die Nacht – Schauspiel Köln

[Katie Mitchell, Joy Division, Germany; Heaven]

Katie Mitchell’s collaborative adaptation of 84-year-old Austrian Friederike Mayröcker’s 1984 novel Reise durch die Nacht is possibly the best thing she’s ever done.

If you know Mitchell’s work at all, then you’ll know that it could be divided into ultra-naturalistic productions of plays and operas and productions which have increasingly experimented with live-feed video technology and foley.

Reise durch die Nacht is the most fully realised example of the latter category I’ve seen. It feels like the (so-far) apex of this trajectory that Mitchell’s (and her collaborators’) work has been following.

My own journey with this trajectory has been a slightly shakey one. I absolutely loved Waves when I saw it. It was the first time I’d ever seen any production do anything like it and I was completely seduced. (Briefly: it was an adaptation for stage of Virginia Woolf’s modernist novel The Waves in which the performers made a live film adaptation of the novel’s stream-of-consciousness technique, creating the sound effects and almost improvising the screened images – a sheet quickly thrown over a table so that the actor could lie on it for a close-up shot of them in bed, for example).

After this there was her version of Attempts On Her Life, which used the same live-feed video technology, but functioning to provide close-ups on scenes being played on the big black empty expanse of the Lyttleton stage.

The next examples I remember of her video work were ...Some Trace of Her and After Dido, neither of which I thought were terrifically successful. ...Some Trace of Her seemed to be treading much of the same ground as Waves to less effect and After Dido, at the time, I didn’t quite see the point of – a visual accompaniment to Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas set in three (?), ultra detailed four-walled (?), contemporary rooms in which some women came and went, possibly underlining the idea that Dido and Aeneas is about someone getting dumped and moping.

After this, I think (think) the video work took a bit of a back seat, and Mitchell seemed to go back to doing proper stage versions of The Pains of Youth, A Woman Killed with Kindness and the Mozart opera Idomeneo (I’m aware this list is a bit partial. And misses the occasional show. I think, most criminally, I dropped the ball on seeing both The Cat in the Hat and Beauty and the Beast, but this is more a map of my understanding of the career arc than a definitive study).

But then, I went to Berlin and saw Fräulein Julie, Leo Warner and Mitchell’s staggering adaptation of Strindberg’s misogynist car-crash. I was stunned. Not only had Mitchell done the impossible and presented a successful feminist (or at least plausible, sympathetic female-viewpoint) production – the entire piece is presented from the perspective of the maid, Kristin with much of the written action of the play consigned to noises off – the video work involved seemed to have leapt forwards thanks to the resources available at the Schaubühne. The film was clearer, beautifully framed, and was shot in a incredible, perfectly-lit, beautifully-designed, ultra-realistic period set. It was an absolute triumph of a piece of work, although I suppose I still had niggling questions about this strange combination of everything being done live, and increasingly apparently solely for the purpose of what we the audience were seeing on the large screen suspended above the stage. (Ian Shuttleworth addresses the same questions forcefully and dismissively here.)

Having, subsequent to Fräulein Julie, adored and enjoyed Wastwater and The Trial of Ubu respectively in Britain, (and having missed her most recent previous Schauspiel Köln piece, Rings of Saturn) I was excited to see what this new piece would bring.

And, well, what it firstly does is suggest a glorious culmination of all Mitchell and Warner's previous experiments in live-feed video productions.

In short, this is a great film. Seeing that it is made and performed live in front of you also makes it great theatre. You don’t really worry about the “why” of it being done live in front of you, but the fact that it is definitely adds an extra dimension. Perhaps that dimension is risk, the dimension that all liveness contains. Perhaps also it humanises film. You could watch a recording of the end result in a cinema, and while I’d contend that would still be excellent, it wouldn’t be the same knowing it was a recording. And, unlike NT Live, you actually are in the same room as the actors, and breathing the same air, which is just a qualitatively different human experience. You can applaud them when it’s over and they can look you in the eye and know you mean it. So what is Reise durch die Nacht (Journey Through/During the Night)?

Apparently Mayröcker’s novel is a dense, beautifully-written splurge of consciousness, with not much by way of a plot. From it, around it, into to, British playwright Duncan Macmillan (whose play Lungs recently opened in London), has spun an expanded narrative over which selected passages of the novel are read as voiceovers, while the actors mouth inaudible (to us) dialogue from the book.

The story concerns Regina who is taking a train from Paris to Vienna. Her father has just died. She has with her a scrapbook of photographs and her husband (?/Partner?) Julian. They have booked a sleeper car with bunk beds. Judging by the look of the train, their clothes, and the fact that at one point in the piece Julian smokes a cigarette in the corridor of the train carriage, Mitchell has set the production in roughly the year of the book’s publication, or slightly earlier. Although the couple could equally have just been landed with old rolling stock, and it might be last year, with Julian taking an understandable-given-the-circumstances risk smoking the cigarette indoors.

What unfolds is a mental journey of a woman coming to realise – through a series of flashbacks to a certain moment in her childhood – something about her mothers’ relationship with her father. And [spoiler alert] having a sudden, violent fuck with the train’s ticket inspector [/spoiler].

Perhaps the two most striking things about the production are the success of the cinematography and its feminism. Or rather, the success with which it feel like it inhabits the mind of the (female) protagonist, and tells the story entirely from her perspective. It is perhaps the best example of such a viewpoint I have ever seen. And this could well be to do with the way in which Mitchell, Warner and co. use the video cameras. As well as having the opinion of looking wherever we want as theatre spectators, we are also offered an “authored” journey of focused images on the screen. Close-ups on Regina’s face as we hear her the jumble of her thoughts.

Something else that struck me is that it’s the first roughly contemporary thing I’ve seen Mitchell tackle with this method. Yes, recently there have been Wastwater and Ubu without video technology, but this is the first non-costume-drama piece I’ve seen with video. And, oddly, that also seemed to make a difference. Perhaps partly because of the films that it situates the work amongst. Instead of “just” looking like a most-than-usually-arty/gritty Merchant Ivory film, Reise... Nacht reminds us of, say, the photos of Nan Goldin, or the films of Krzysztof Kieślowski. (In fact, just checking I hadn’t misremembered the latter aesthetic on YouTube just now, I discover instead that at least the opening of A Short Film About Love now looks to me like a live feed from a Mitchell/Warner production). (Similarly, looking at the Wikipedia entry on Kieślowski – mostly to ensure correct spelling of his name – his early work is characterised as being tightly “focused on the ethical choices faced by a single character” – which is a fine description of what’s going on here.)

The production has also got two songs by Joy Division in it. Which just makes it even more perfect. I’d argue it could hardly have been any other band. What is more strange is that the production itself seemed to suggest a Joy Division sort of aesthetic even before the band’s actual music was overtly used (though who can say what suggestive, remix-y, trickery, sound designers extraordinaire Melanie Wilson and Gareth Fry had been tinkering with prior to that point). Partly it’s just that footage of moving through European cities in the night in the late 70s always irresistibly reminds me of this famous video of the band performing Shadowplay (not one of the songs included. Those are Transmission and New Dawn Fades – that said, New Dawn Fades turns out to be a bit much for the sex scene; a bit too cinema-perfect/overwrought. I’d have gone for something a bit more offhand and less overtly elegiac myself. Ideally with a change of song half way through, since the song is playing in the world of the play, not over it).

And, I’ve done that thing where I’ve even got to discussing nit-picky stuff about the soundtrack before even mentioning the actors. Again. This is ridiculous. Because the actors really are stunningly good. Most of Reise... ends up being carried by two female performers – Julia Wieninger as Regina and Ruth Marie Kröger as both Regina's silent mother in flashback sequences, and the extraordinary voiceover. Not carried because the men aren’t good – everyone is excellent – but because between them, Wieninger’s face and Kröger’s voice feel more or less constantly present. It’s strange to reflect, looking back, that by the end, we’ve never actually heard Wieninger’s real voice; only this version of her internal monlogue voiced by Kröger.

I should also praise another so-good-they-make-it-seem-effortless soundscape by Melanie Wilson and Gareth Fry. This appears to be mostly pre-recorded. And I have no idea whether it’s triggered in episodes by someone at a sound-desk, or whether, like a recorded score for a dance piece, it just rolls relentlessly on, and all the performers have to run to keep in step with it. Either way, it is another of those experiences where you can almost hear the quality of attention that has gone into capturing a sound just precisely so, so that you don’t notice it at all, until you perhaps look away from the screen and see something that reminds you that it’s all being created on the stage below it and so that all the sounds are also synthetic – at least at point-of-delivery, if not origin.

Indeed, there’s such a power to this combination of screen and sound that at one point, where Regina is sticking her head out of the window of the moving train, and another train suddenly slams past, fast, in the other direction, you involuntarily wince, even as you notice the person on stage turning the mechanism used to created the lights of the other train flashing past her train, and see the person holding the thing that made the wind in her hair. There’s also a beautifully developed visual language – a richness to the cold, nicotine-stained, seediness of late Cold-War Western Europe. Beautiful little touches, like close-ups on Regina’s husband wiping vaseline off his little finger after his morning toilet.

It’s been commented before (though not especially by me), that Katie Mitchell’s work – and I do feel increasingly daft subscribing to this single-name model for referring to the work, since Mitchell is clearly also an incredibly astute collaborator – is a bit surface-y, cold, and apolitical. This feels increasingly untrue to me, especially as we consider her body of work en masse. Apart from anything else, this is perhaps the most explicitly, importantly feminist body of work for theatre since Caryl Churchill’s collected works, and in a far more practical way. Rather than just writing plays that say some feminist things, Mitchell is exploring ways to present female perspectives, even from within problematically “male” (and sometimes deeply misogynist) texts. Here, thanks I would guess to Mayröcker's core text, rather than fighting against something, the piece feels like it is immersed in female experience.

Credit also, then, to Duncan Macmillan, whose adaptation this is (although the credits on the website (no programmes in evidence) also name Lyndsey Turner in the same breath, so, I don’t know exactly who did what). The terms of the Mayröcker literary estate forbid any additional actual words (although interestingly the interpostion of a whole made-up sex scene was fine), but if anything, this just makes me admire the adaptation all the more. There are moments when we can see the characters talking in the sleeping compartment of their railway carriage, but we cannot hear what they’re saying. And everything they’re inaudibly saying is also dialogue from the book.

This adaptation has to be one of the smartest and most original I’ve ever seen on a stage. Anywhere.  It feels like it has taken a thought process and made a totally fitting physical manifestation of it, and one with narrative interest and wit to boot.

Having just read back through what you’ve read so far (unless you skip straight to the end, you bloody weirdo), it feels like I’ve got so bogged down in trying to say what there was and how good, and how well done it was, that I’ve totally failed to communicate how artistically exciting, and how actually exciting the thing was. For what was essentially a small budget, theoretically slow-paced arthouse movie, Reise... gives a real buzz. No tools for analysing how on earth it manages that, but it does. As well as being intelligent, progressive and experimental theatre, this is also a seductive, engrossing and thrilling night out.

Trailer for the production here:

And: “to the centre of the city in the night waiting for you” (Shadowplay – Joy Division)

(I dread to think how many of these blogs I’ve concluded with that video. Still, if it ain’t broke...)

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