Friday 11 June 2010

Faust (erster Teil) - Deutsches Theater

Goethe’s Faust occupies a position in the German literary canon for which we Brits – perhaps fortunately – have no dramatic equivalent. Basically, it’s sort of an unstageable peak. I think the closest we could get would be if Shakespeare’s pair of history tetralogies was just two plays. With no real reduction in length. But, as if the histories contained as many coinages and (now) clichés of our language as Macbeth and Othello and held a similar place in the national imagination to Hamlet or King Lear (but with as many duff moments as Pericles, Timon and Cymbeline combined), but with the curious extra dimension that Goethe wrote Faust in deliberately völkisch idiom – so perhaps imagine all the above if Shakespeare had written the above plays in cod-Norse/Anglo-Saxon/Chaucerian. Actually, all that godawful Arthurian stuff by Tennyson is probably nearer the mark.

Some of you might have seen Silviu Purcarete’s reportedly lavish staging in Edinburgh last year (sadly, I didn’t – but I imagine it’ll turn up at another festival). Another useful point of comparison might be Peter Stein’s 21-hour staging of both parts in 2000. These productions perhaps give some idea of the difficulties of size, length and scale demanded by the text.

Michael Thalheimer’s production of the first part runs for 1hr50 and offers only six (seven?) characters on stage. To call this a study in stark minimalism doesn’t even begin to cover it. The staging is also a thing of much starkness.

The first fifty minutes to an hour are played on the very front of the stage – virtually a corridor – between mostly Faust and the various visitors to his scholarly cell (a neighbour, a student, Mephistopheles), while the stage’s enormous revolve essentially contrives to make it look like the high, plain, black, walls of his cell are continually turning (if you see what I mean).

This first setting basically takes us up to the bit where Faust, weary of everything that the world seems able to offer, sells his soul in the hope that he’ll ever experience anything worth experiencing.

As a thing to watch, much of it is intensely still (save for the ever revolving wall). The performances – my heard-German is still what it could be in terms of comprehension – are fascinating just on a level of what the actors seem to be doing – there’s a weird kind of style deployed here –and it’s not the first time I’ve seen it – which is almost operatic in its treatment of text. It’s not sung, per se, but it is variously delivered lentissimo, allegro, sotto voce or fortissimo con fuoco. And so far as anyone has ever explained to me, while not actually *random*, there isn’t necessarily an obvious reason for where these differences might be deployed. No one seems to do anything so frightfully obvious as shouting when they’re angry or talking slowly when they’re thinking, for instance. That said, it’s worth noting that Goethe’s rhyming text is, at the same time as the above innovations, is still being spoken more as naturalised speech than being end-stopped as verse.

Not understanding half as much as I’d like to, puts me at a distinct disadvantage in terms of staying interested here, but in my defence, I’d say I did mildly better than the party of not-quite-tacitly restive teens amongst whom I was sat. (Still, full marks to them for even turning up on a gorgeous Sunday evening for two hours of Goethe, even if it was mostly to text one another throughout).

Perhaps mindful of his audience’s patience, perhaps also in lieu of an interval, Thalheimer chucks his audience a brilliantly unexpected curve-ball. So far, we’ve had this mostly pretty muted, very sober setted production. It’s a fair assumption that most people in the audience know what’s coming up in the story, and so, instead of Mephistopheles taking Faust to the Witches’ Sabbath he gives us about seven minutes of this:

Yup. Seven minutes of Deep Purple’s Child in Time, while Ingo Hülsmann’s Faust dances, air guitars and throws himself about in front of the revolving wall, which now has bright white light shining out from the gaps between the planks. It’s one of those moments which really reminds me why I love German theatre. An hour of really serious looking and sounding heavy dialogue, apparently brilliantly edited, and then seven minutes of buggering around to 70’s metal as a dramaturgical decision. Brilliant.

It’s not very deep, I know; but I do love it. Quite a large part of me also wanted to get out my phone’s video camera, film it, and send the clip to my best teenage friend with whom I grew up listening to this sort of stuff with a note explaining what it was (It’s 9pm on Sunday, I’m in Berlin watching Faust in German. Check this... – kinda thing).

After the Purple/Sabbath (is that the gag Thalheimer’s going for? One imagines not), the remainder of the action from Goethe that he can be bothered with is the stuff concerning Gretchen. For those of you who don’t know Goethe’s Faust, this is where Part One takes serious leave from the Marlowe (the Witches’ Sabbath scene does, after all, have mild equivalences in its Elizabethan forerunner). Basically, Faust sees a young madchen walking down the street and falls in love with her. Her one discernable character trait is her purity/chastity. Mephistopheles sleeps with her neighbour Marthe, Faust gets the girl, gets the girl pregnant, and then buggers off. Somewhere in all this, Gretchen asks Faust if he believes in God. Apparently in German, this is known as “die Gretchen frage” (the Gretchen question) – which is now a catch-all term for asking a naïve question.

Here the question is repeated a number of times, in what is clearly another key aspect of Thalheimer’s approach to the text – his emphasis on the existential questions of desire and knowledge at the play’s heart.

Gretchen’s eventual suicide is gorily rendered as a sudden spurt of blood from her neck as she cuts her own throat. And that’s practically it. Faust and Meph. slink off not-very-guiltily to wait for part two to start happening to them in another theatre another time.

Did I like it? Yes and no. I think my enjoyment would probably have been doubled by actually knowing what the hell Faust and Meph. were talking about, tripled by being able to appreciate Goethe’s actual use of language, and quadrupled by knowing the text well enough to really appreciate the cuts that Thalheimer’s version makes and being able to have a perspective on them. It would even , possibly, have been quintupled if I’d previously seen lots of other, more traditional, more staid productions, more literal productions against which to compare this sleek minimalist version.

Even so, aside from perhaps being a bit on the slow side (it really is very still indeed) there was something admirable about the austerity and the unpatronising demands made on the concentration. No spoon-feeding or playing to the gallery here – or very little, at any rate – this was serious seriousness being taken very seriously indeed, and I liked that a lot. You didn’t get much of an impression of a director worrying if his audience were “entertained”. Instead, this felt like someone taking a highly regarded piece of literature and offering their version of it to people who they trusted to appreciate being treated like thinking adults.

There’s an excellent description of Thalheimer’s style over at the Goethe Institut here, which manages to explain what I’ve been trying to describe above with a much better grasp of the context.

And another blog review in English of the production here, which fills in a few of the literary blanks.


alexf said...

Cymbeline? Duff moments? Pshaw.

But otherwise, very nice.

Ian Shuttleworth said...

Inspired me to re-watch Szabo's "Mephisto".

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