Friday 27 June 2008

Postcards aus Wiesbaden - yer actual stücke

[work in progress]

Long overdue, here’s a quick trot-through of the plays seen by Postcards in Wiesbaden and Mainz during the Neue Stücke biennale. I’m afraid due to time pressure they’re necessarily a bit on the brisk side, focusing more on what stuck out than seeking to give “proper” review of each. Still, at least that means this post might come in at a manageable length.

Śmierc Człowieka-Wiewiórki (or Der tod des Eichhörnchenmenschen) by Teatr 2xu/ustausta, Warsaw at the Wartburg theatre in Wiesbaden.

Śmierc Człowieka-Wiewiórki is performed in Polish with German simultaneous translation. Since I have neither Polish nor German, I was pretty much stumped. That said, the staging was more than engaging enough to hold the attention for most of the duration, so it was often more a case of feeling mildly frustrated rather than bored. According to the programme bumf, it “tells the story of Ulrike Meinhof and the RAF as grotesque pop theatre”. The aesthetic is a familiar one: flats painted as concrete behind and flanking the stage; projections of pop art and newsreel footage mixed with live video feeds; a white noise soundtrack tuning in and out of sixties pop music and Bach.

It is difficult to talk about the actual performances, since the speech/dialogue/whatever-it-is was unavailable to me, but it seemed pretty serviceable, high-energy stuff. Marcin Liber's staging may or may not closely fit the action, though I suspect, given the level of what could be termed “interventions” or “non-naturalistic moments”, that it was more interpretative than “writer-serving”. This jumped the proverbial shark at the moment where the all-purpose cop/tool-of-the-repressive-state crucifies and then rapes Gudrun Ensslin – or is it Ulrike Meinhof? – against the back wall of the stage. Thanks to the general artiness, this was not so much a moment of gross-out, in-yer-face brutality, but a kind of demonstration or indication of this action taking place – the strategy foregrounds the unreality of what you are watching, while still making you wince at the implied horrors taking place.

ENGLAND - Great Britain / news from nowhere, Brighton

[Coming soon]

Mariella - Sweden / Göteborgs Stadsteater

Mariella is the first bit of European theatre I’ve seen where I felt completely at home. I was back in the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs circa 2001 watching yet another drama about disadvantaged youths hanging out on council estates and being sexually abused. Apparently the language of Mariella’s script is rather good; if you happen to speak Swedish. And the acting all looked fine – that odd thing of actors in their mid/late-twenties pretending to be 16, but we're used to that, aren't we?

However, the black box staging, quotidian lighting, and minimalist set – here a park bench, there a chair and a television set – did, if nothing else, reassure me that mainland Europe is not all just regietheater and spectacular innovation. Of course this is monstrously unfair given that I experienced only the design elements and blocking with any level of clarity, but these were dull enough in themselves to be reassuring. I am told that the storyline was also cheap and hackneyed in the extreme, so success and enjoyment were down to the clever use of contemporary Swedish idiom, appreciation of which was limited to only one of our group, who still appeared to find the piece pretty standard. So there we go.

The Pride of Parnell Street - Ireland / Fishamble Theatre Company, Dublin

My views on this are already a matter of public record. What my review doesn’t say is how much a matter of benefit-of-the-doubt was on offer. I saw this the same evening that I saw Mariella; Parnell Street started at ten and finished at eleven forty-five, and from halfway through I was willing it to end with every fibre of my being. Such is sometimes the life of a critic. It seemed desperately unfair to allow these factors to influence me, though. It really wasn’t the play’s fault. It was well-written and superbly acted, even if Irish intercut monologues really aren’t my thing. Although there did seem to be a certain amount of “so what” about it, irrespective of taste. However, this was one of those occasions where all the factors militating against it did it a lot of favours. Also, having seen Barry’s earlier play Hinterland, the simple fact that Pride… wasn’t Hinterland earned it several more brownie points.

hamlet ist tot. keine schwerkraft / hamlet is dead. no gravity - Austria, Schauspielhaus Wien, in co-production with wiener wortstaetten

Review here. There really is a lot more to say about this production. As with my recent mea culpa about Relocated, this was another review where I really don't think I got anywhere close to unpacking the heart of the thing. My review – like a few too many of my reviews recently, turned into something of a meta-review diverted to discussing the problems of experiencing a foreign text at the expense of talking about the actual play.

Discussing the play in this way was partially a strategy of replacing customary appreciation of horizontal and vertical contexts with foregrounded naïvety. It was also the only possible honest response, especially in an extended word-count. Even so, I felt I hadn't even begun to communicate what it was that I found so thrilling about the performance. On the other hand, this is in part due to the fact that I still find it incredibly difficult to communicate meaningfully about stuff that grabs me on a really basic aesthetic level. Like Attempts on Her Life, Simple Girl, Trojan Woman and Thomas Ostermeier's Hedda Gabler there was something here that just clicked with What I Like Best. That's very hard to make into a review that can mean something to anyone else, not least when that readership – in this instance the international attendees of a theatre festival – will have fewer of the usual reference points one might hope to be able to deploy.

Verschwinden oder Die Nacht wird abgeschafft / Disappearing or Night Is Abolished - Austria

Oh dear – interesting experience of cultural difference on this one. I went to see this with only one of my colleagues from the Young Critics Forum, the Bulgarian critic Kremena Dimitrova (or Кремена Димитрова in case she wants to Google herself). She was reviewing it for the Biennale Bulletin, I was just there because there were supposed to be English audio-descriptions available. There weren't. More reading from the script, for me, then. What I found fascinating, reading the script for the first time as the events unfolded on the stage was how profoundly what was happening on stage seemed to be at odds with what was happening in the text.

In recent weeks, I guess I've been a bit keen to talk up the idea of “director's theatre”, if only because it seems so universally mistrusted -not even really culturally understood - in here (Hell, I doubt I've got a proper handle on it myself). Well, this was the flip side, this was Where Regietheater Goes Bad. The script itself was a flimsy thing – an odd, allegorical story about an extended family featuring some faux naif ingénue flitting between men and a sexless big brother figure, while these men sought to do each other in. Pretty non-naturalistic stuff. The sort of thing Sarah Kane might have knocked up as a writing exercise along tragic Greek lines when she was about 19. And I could imagine what the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs or Gate production might have looked like in an ideal world, both the literal what's-in-the-script-is-what-happens versions, and the slightly freer versions we might see now.

Anyway, what this production seemed to do was simply give every indication that the director hadn't understood the script at all. The setting didn't help. Playing in a particularly shabby venue, the play looked like student theatre at its diabolical worst: cheap set, cheap props, bad lighting design and acting that simply didn't reach past row one.

[to be concluded...]

Fremde im Haus / Strangers at Home - Italy

[Coming soon]

Transfer! - Poland / Wroclaw Contemporary Theatre

Having seen the worst example of directors’ theatre in Verschwinden, Transfer does an awful lot to remind one why anyone thought regietheater was a good idea in the first place.

Ten ‘real’ old people – i.e. non-professional performers – are seated at the back of the large stage, variously they come to the front of the stage and relate their experiences of living on a strip of land between Germany and Poland at the end of WWII. So far, so testimony/verbatim theatre via Rimini Protokol.

However, Jan Klata doesn’t stop there (i.e. only several miles ahead of Max Stafford-Clark and Robin Soans). Oh no. On top of this already fascinating show, Klata puts actors playing Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin on a massive raised platform and has them perform grotesques of the Yalta conference. Again, not a massive leap, but interesting stuff, nonetheless. Then, periodically they are handed guitars and a keyboard and suddenly start miming to the songs of Joy Division.

As far as anyone has been able to explain to me, there isn’t anything like a rationale for this, but that hardly seemed to matter. As a Joy Division purist, I was mildly troubled that the instruments were a bit on the eighties hair-metal end of things, and that there was a keyboard but no drummer. There was no vocalist either, although Stalin on bass did the honours miming to the vocals...

[to be concluded...]

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