Saturday 2 May 2015

Die Schutzbefohlenen – Haus der Berliner Festspiele, Berlin

[seen 01/05/2015]

Elfriede Jelinek’s latest text is a response to immigration: immigration to Austria, immigration to Germany (the number one destination in Europe, Britain is only number four, understandably), the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean, all of it. Both her text and Nicholas Stemann’s staging of it are also concerned with the problem of theatre in a predominantly white, Western country trying to stage such a response. In a move that feels almost inevitable, being German-language theatre, the way it does this is to take Aeschylus’s 2,500-year-old play, The Suppliants as a starting point.

The piece opens with a stage full of refugees. Quite literally. Hamburg’s Thalia Theater has recruited a 40(?)-strong chorus of actual illegal immigrants/refugee activists for this production. The first image when the piece starts is them lined up across the front of the stage with the opening lines of Jelinek’s text echoing around the room. It is gradually revealed that the lines are being spoken by three middle-aged, white men at the back with microphones. The chorus disperses and the first, what? half-an-hour? consists of these men continuing with this poetic, punning, probably-classical-tragedy-derived chorus. When they are joined by an actor of non-white heritage they imagine that there are communication problems, despite his being an actor from Hamburg now based in Berlin, “Phone my agent” he suggests. Blank looks. Examinations of the surtitles (in English) projected onto the theatre walls to find out what he’s saying. Etc. A giant wooden crucifix and church windows descend from the flies. Etc.

During this first hour or so, my sympathies pinged back and forth on an almost minute-to-minute basis. Is this good? I wondered. Is this useful? Are they tackling racism or actually being massively racist? At one point after the black actor has joined them on stage, one of the white chorus goes off and returns half-heartedly blacked-up, as per many German stage productions. The look the black actor gives him is so brilliantly withering as to be worth the price of admission alone. Trope after trope is exploded. Two of the white actors at one point turn up dressed in false beard on one and headscarf on the other. The sheer silliness of this simultaneous failed-attempt-at-representation, satire, and affront somehow even recalls the problem of Charlie Hebdo (as – on another level – does the Wir Sind Lampedusa cardboard placard, nailing not only the problems of that sort of crass identification, but also CH’s own perceived racism).

What’s surprising (for Germany) is the level of directness here. Yes, on one level the whole thing is deeply ironic – about itself, about everything else, especially about the futility of what it’s doing – but at the same time, it’s very direct about what it’s being ironic about. Problem after problem is named. The problem of a white Austrian woman authoring a text about immigrants, the problem of a white director trying to achieve authenticity by employing black actors and a chorus of real-life refugees. The problem of condescension. The lot. As such, at times it’s quite difficult to watch. A process of infinite recursions, rather than *drama*(Drama!).

Ultimately, whether you find this good or bad (ha! Such categories!) might depend on your national training. Because this absolutely isn’t what the British version of this same thing would look like. I suspect most British productions on this subject would choose to start by ignoring all the elephants in the room. For at least the first hour Die Schutzbefohlenen stages little more than just the elephants. Rather than seeking to make a digestible play that looks at the problems faced by refugees through the prism of a satisfying fictional narrative (see, well, most British plays on the subject really), for most of the evening we’re pretty much in the theatre watching the problems of the theatre on the stage. And indeed we’re playing the part of the equally problematic white, middle-class, privileged, Western audience while we do so. At which point, the very idea of ever watching something which ignores these problems (Lampedusa, anyone?) feels like a far greater affront to human dignity than actually facing these problems of representation head-on. Of course, theatre about the failure of theatre can be immensely frustrating, but here theatre also stands in for white, Western civilisation at large, and theatre’s failures become observably the failures of society at large.

At the same time there are points, when the refugees return to the stage and speak for themselves (again, staggeringly direct in my experience of German theatre), where the irony is binned in favour of simple, moving testimony – the names of the chorus members who have been deported since the production began, the name of the chorus member who was murdered while sleeping rough, the stories of the refugees in the chorus, why they had to leave their home countries, etc.

The overall effect of the piece is hard to immediately assess. As the final lights faded to black, there was one of those long audience-pauses before the applause, where everyone watching just gathered themselves. And, yes, it did feel like we’d been through the wringer. The piece makes no apologies for pointing the finger at its audience and calling them out for their complacency, privilege, and their continuing to do nothing to solve the world’s seemingly insoluble problems. In this it was, if anything, even more successful than Wallace Shawn’s The Fever because, though less pointed and ferocious in its accusations, it made them in precisely the place we’re most accustomed to being: the theatre. This wasn’t a J’Accuse hurled in a hotel room that I’d otherwise have never entered, but in a totally familiar theatre space that I’ve visited on numerous occasions (the same would have been true in Hamburg).

On one level this is difficult, intellectually challenging theatre. It doesn’t give us an easy ride. It doesn’t offer the consolations of narrative, or pat us on the back for at least turning up. It relentlessly prods and pokes at its audience, often even at the level of its own content. On another level, though, this is completely accessible (though, more so to German-speakers, obvs). While intellectual and philosophical, the problems it presents and the way it tackles them could be grasped by a bright seven-year-old. I don’t think you need to have a keen appreciation of its classical allusions (on top of The Suppliants, at another stage Europa makes a(nother) appearance riding on her bull, draped in the flag of the EU) to get the point. Sure, the more stuff you happen to know, the more levels reveal themselves, but that’s true of everything. Doubtless there was a load of stuff I didn’t get. But, difficult watch though it was, it was an incredibly effective and affecting piece of theatre.

[Edit: original introduction: In an irony that I suspect Germany will appreciate, the UK-based American playwright Anders Lustgarten recently accused German theatre of being “very arch, with an arctic chilly distance to it. And that’s exactly the product of what happens when you are destroying people not very far away and you don’t wanna think about it.” Leaving aside the sheer idiocy/Olympian condescension of trying to characterise an entire country’s theatrical output with three adjectives, the occasion of this interview was Lustgarten’s play Lampedusa, his stab at British consciences re: the ongoing humanitarian crisis of drowned immigrants in the Mediterranean...  The first play at this year’s Theatertreffen – the Berlin-based showcase of the ten best plays in German-language theatre over the last year – is Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek’s response to the exact same subject. Nevertheless, Lustgarten’s choice of adjectives – “arch”, “artic”, “chilly” – is worth tackling, even if his rationale for thinking why (all of!) German theatre might be like that is immediately blown clean out of the water by this play staring hard into the heart of precisely the same problem as his own.]

[So, to address the bracketed introduction directly: hardly chilly-ly distant, hardly not wanna-ing to think about destroying people. And arch? Well, only in service of its own relentless self-reproach. Which I found admirable. Now, I’m a pluralist; I completely see the value of myriad other theatrical approaches to tackling vast impossible subjects. However, I don’t think the charges against (the whole of!) German theatre even remotely begin to stack up if they can be this easily disproved after one random example. Danke und gute nacht.]

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