Friday 26 October 2012

Glaube, Liebe, Hoffnung – Volksbühne

[in which Haydon fails at some German theatre]

There is a world of difference between understanding and feeling and much of German theatre inhabits the faultline. Ödön von Horváth (born somewhere now in Croatia into the Austro-Hungarian Empire, writing in German)’s 1932 play – literally Faith, Love, Hope but plainly adapted from 1 Corinthians 13.13: („Für jetzt bleiben Glaube, Hoffnung, Liebe, diese drei; doch am größten unter ihnen ist die Liebe”) – briefly tells the story of Elisabeth, a young woman who has lost her job in the recession, and opens with her trying to sell her body to the Anatomischen Institut.

Apparently – according to Mark Ravenhill, who also saw the show last night [Sunday 21st] – the physical text of the play is about 45 pages long. Christoph (Swiss, actually) Marthaler’s production manages to somehow stretch this into a 3hr40 running time (including interval.  At least 3hrs45 if you also include the applause).

Having loved Marthaler’s Meine Faire Dame so much this summer, I think I knew I could only love this less. So, let’s begin with Mark’s short Twitter review, which presents the positives about the production remarkably neatly – “Marthaler & Horváth at the Volksbühne = a perfect marriage: wry, unhurried, cheap/potent music, calmly political. See it if you possibly can.” – and expand outwards.

Marthaler’s take on the text is indeed unhurried; this is definitely the scenic route. Witness the first ten minutes: lights up on an orchestra pit, in which a range of vintage speakers are seated on a number of chairs before music stands. The speakers “tune up”, emitting scapes and squeaks of both orchestral instruments and electrical pulses (Musik: Clemens Sienknecht, Christoph Marthaler, Martin Schütz; Sounddesign/Realisierung Lautsprecherorchester: Klaus Dobbrick). Just before this starts to ellicit giggles and restlessness an anonymous and, it turns out, completely irrelevant (he isn’t seen again throughout the next 3hrs35) workman wobbles onto the stage precariously carrying a too-tall ladder. He totters over to the back wall of Anna Viebrock’s set and props the ladder against the concrete awning of the imposingly drab bit of beige sixties architecture.

It is interesting to note that the set (and costumes – Sarah Schittek) here, as in Meine Faire Dame, is another absolutely perfect reproduction of 1960s New Europe architecture. The sort of thing you might find on a vintage postcard advertising the futuristic times in which the sender found themselves. The exact same yellow, beige and concrete palette. It is perhaps less clear why this is the case here than it was in ...Dame, with its associations of Marthaler’s generation’s experience of learning languages. But it feels none the less charming for again suggesting that the director is mining the Europe of his youth for the place in which to situate these even older dramas, perhaps choosing it not as a neutral staging post, so much as bringing the play over the huge chasm of WWII.

The workman is attaching modernist capital letters to the building, getting as far as “ANAT_M ______ INST...” before his ladder gives way scattering splintered rungs and sending him crashing to the floor. All to the accompaniment of the accompaniment of this strange modernist “orchestra”.

The workman exits. A conductor enters, and attempts to tame the speakers. Gives up. Sits in the pit. A prologue (or perhaps it’s the stage directions) is spoken. The small(ish) ensemble cast enter (includes: German Joss Ackland, German Jim Broadbent and German John Candy; perhaps also German Lesley Manville). Elisabeth is play by two similar-looking brunette actresses wearing complimentary-but-by-no-means-identical dresses, sometimes speaking in chorus, sometimes speaking in turn, sometimes taking a majority of a scene solo, while their opposite number seems to hide behind a wall on the far side of the stage observing the action.

And this is now the process of the play for at least the next two hours. It’s slow, sometimes repeats itself, and frequently breaks off into even more abstract musical sequences, which either accompany the action or intervene in it. Chopin’s funeral march, played live on the piano by the disconsolate conductor figure, features over and over again as the scene in which Elisabeth tries to sell her body for medical research plays on a loop.

The original text contains something like 35 characters, Marthaler’s ensemble numbers 14. However, as the characters of the original mostly serve (I think) to provide local colour, rather than really driving the plot – such as it is – so having them either omitted, condensed down into types, or doubled without registering as such, does not feel (with no knowledge of the original) like a terrible liberty has been taken in the name of Regietheater. Nor is the music bleeding from the pit out of place. Apparently the original text also suggests that there are the ever-present sounds of cheap music and Chopin being played from various radios, cafés, bars and etc. in the city through which Elisabeth wanders.

Actually, it does feel worth noting that this sort of play feels quite specifically “German”. If we think of great big sprawly things like Woyzeck, Baal, and even Mother Courage, we see a sort of drama with a central character encountering a huge array of peripheral characters which just doesn’t seem to happen in the roomlocked British drama of the same period (nor in Chekhov, or the Ibsens that are actually popular). (Although, oddly, it does seem to happen in Simon Stephens’s plays like Harper Regan and Motortown, and, now I think about it, in Mark’s own Some Explicit Polaroids. And maybe some Howard Barker. (although all three are notably German-influenced))

What’s strange about this production is how little one feels. Granted, Mark’s more patient than me (oddly, he and I both wrote on this subject in 2009 – Mark’s piece on Lupa here, my response about that year’s Spill here), and I was a bit tired, and it was nearly four hours in a theatre on a Sunday evening after a long week... But, it was interesting to me that while it was performed in German, without surtitles, when Mark and I discussed it at the interval I seemed to have been following the “plot” adequetely. It was just that somewhere between the lack of urgency in the performances/dialogue, and probably my lack of being actually able to pick up on the creeping nuances (if there were any *inside* the play/production), I wasn’t so engaged.

Horváth’s play is now of additional historical interest as, besides being a drama of a desperate, jobless woman in a recession – making it an obvious candidate for revival – it is also a document of a country sleepwalking into fascism. Horváth always claimed to be apolitical – which in 1932 Germany, with the benefit of hindsight, feels disgusting; but then how many of us could imagine what happened in Germany after 1933 happening before it had happened? The play was apparently banned by the Nazis until 1936 when “a version” reappeared with the appropriately fascistic new title Liebe, Pflicht und Hoffnung (Love, Duty and Hope). However, the production mitigates this historical interest by setting the piece in some sort of post-war western European hinterland – a kind of liberal wet-dream of hope, underscored still by recession after recession.

Perhaps, on refection, this is precisely the political point Marthaler is making, although much reflection is required to even imagine that. And, from reading his introduction to Meine Faire Dame, one got the impression that his chief interests were those of someone concerned with people, loneliness and emotions, all of which this productions seems to demonstrate in spades, much more than in grand political narratives, which I suggest you’d have to dig hard to perceive anyway. And yet, even these emotional narratives felt strangely buried and abstracted. What with the doubled actresses for the protagonist, and the wan music and design, there was still some of the post-Brechtian distaste for “empathy” or “feeling”.

So, what am I doing here? I think I’m dangerously close to reviewing the play in terms of a different (British) theatre culture, and saying that it doesn’t really work according to its rules. Which I can’t stand. On the other hand, I am also British and can only say what I saw, so: this is plainly a very intelligent, beautifully crafted, crisply designed production, which I admired rather than fully engaged with.

[post script: in case the above review left you in any doubt that it should have been Ravenhill and not me reviewing this show, he kindly tweeted after reading to point out that: 'central character walks around landscape meets others' is a German form called 'station-drama' (after stations of the cross). Bit more on Stationendramen at Wikipedia. I'm now going off to a) read some more books, and b) to drop my new found phrase into every damn review I write...]

[That said, the Volksbühne remains probably one of my favourite theatres in the world and a full-price, not-preview, one-price-bracket-off-top-price ticket only set me back €22 (£17.50). So, eat that, Travelex season. Volk indeed.]


BenjiP said...

Hi Andrew

Really enjoying the blog at the moment, - very glad you came back to it and are tending to it well.

Saw this is Paris, and yes, it's a slow burner, and at the time it feels like it's more admirable than delivering of emotional punches, but it's one which has stayed with me, and the more I look back at it, the more it seems to be an "affective" piece.

A thought I have had more than once while reading your blog - you don't often mention France or theatre in / from France. Yet I don't think that someone like Marthaler can be said to be making entirely "German theatre". After all, he grew up and trained in Paris, and although much of his work is in German, it comes to France a hell of a lot. In the same way, I wouldn't say that Luc Bondy makes "French theatre" or "German theatre". This probably even applies to someone like Ostermeier, who is always such a huge hit (Le Monde had a two page spread just covering the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Schaubuehne). Maybe my point is that, due to, perhaps, a more porous relationship between theatre cultures in continental Europe, when Marthaler is played in Paris, it is just "theatre in German". I can see how fascinating it is to compare theatre in England to theatre in Germany, but maybe we are arriving, not quite yet, but not so far off that it is beyond the horizon, at a point where we understand the work of, say, Marthaler as "theatre in German" rather than "German theatre". And wouldn't it be a more constructive way of thinking about it?

Anyway, just some thoughts.

Did you ever manage to get hold of the director of the Bruce Norris play? Would love to read the interview. So much of the commentary about that episode was confused and depressing. And then it got all mangled up with the RSC story. Although with that, even though one might disagree with the arguments made against the RSC, it may have been a brilliant way of drawing attention to a problem that otherwise never makes it into the press - casting opportunities for East Asian actors.

Apologies for being a bit rambly.

Just wanted to say I really like your blog and wanted to make a little contribution.


Andrew Haydon said...

Thank you very much.

And you're right, I am criminally ignorant of what the hell the French are up to. I think the only two French directors whose work I'm really aware of are Gisele Vienne and Arianne Mnouchkine - and I love the former almost as much as I detested the latter's latest thing at the Edinburgh Int.Festival this year.

Actually, I'm pretty useless on anything south/west of Germany. I should do something about it.

Re: porous r/ship between thetre cultures in Europe. I suspect you're probably right. I didn't know about the Le Monde thing, but it makes a lot of sense. If any British paper had an arts section worth the name, I can imagine the Schaubühne's 50th being one of the few "continental" theatres they might deign to cover (apart from that maybe The Berliner Ensemble, the Burgtheater in Vienna, maybe even Theatre du Soleil might also get anniversary mentions).

I suppose it's largely a consequence of never really being in France that I don't really see the links going in that direction (although, ironically, the next review coming up is of a David Marton show at the Schaubühne that opened in Paris). And it does feel, at conferences and so on (like the one in Lublin, write-up also pending), that thanks to the ex-Soviet bloc (of which, of course, half of Germany was a part) there is much more traffic between those countries than there is south/westwards.

But then I suppose I also think this because I've never managed to get to Avignon, so an understanding of a significant chunk of the international theatre ecology is missing from my picture of it.

Thanks for bringing it up, though. Always good to get called on lazy assumptions and descriptions.

Right, then. France...