Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Wastwater – Schauspiel Köln

Lisa (Judith Rosmair) in Act 2

If reviews of premières tend to concentrate on “the play” then reviews of revivals tend to concentrate on “the production”. As was discussed a good deal last year, this is not an ideal situation. It is more difficult than you might think to separate play and production. What a director does with a text, what part a writer plays in the production process, the actual extent of the contributions made by actors, designers, lighting designers, sound designers, perhaps video designers, and so on, are all impossible to guess, and nigh-on impossible to quantify even when observed.

Seeing Wastwater again, this time in its German première production, directed by Dieter Giesing for Schauspiel Köln, makes this point more keenly than many comparisons.

It’s not revolutionary to suggest that the better a production, the better it makes a play look. We’ve got endless productions of Shakespeare to bear out the fact that a great play can be made interminable by the wrong hands, and sluggish plays can be brought to wonderful life by creative ones. And, at this point, we might wonder whether there is even such a thing as “a good play” or “a sluggish play” without a production.

I remember being incredibly surprised by Lyn Gardner’s review of a revival of The Pillowman in Leicester, which, while ostensibly praising the production, ripped the throat out of Martin McDonagh’s play. A play which I’d loved when I saw it in London. I think it is fair to say that one can believe that a production is really good and it’s the play that is bad, but that belief is stood on pretty shaky ground. After all, if the production was really good, you’d like the play, right?

I imagine you can all see where this is going. I really like Wastwater. Not just as a production, I had thought, but as a text. But, yes, I did see Katie Mitchell make an incredible case for it at the Royal Court in 2011 before I’d ever read the script (which I have now read more times that I care to admit). And so to Giesing’s German première...

Well, the first surprise is that it’s entirely naturalistic. I know, right? It’s German. Where is all the fucking about? Where are the animal heads, microphones, big TV screens, buckets of blood being thrown around, stage mess, radical deconstruction, stuff to beggar belief, stuff to make we Brits feel like we’ve never explored the possibilities of a stage before?

I was told Giesing is Germany’s leading naturalistic director (although I doubt Peter Stein will take that lying down), and a quick look at his CV online does indeed look like he’s done all right for himself. On this showing, I can’t help but wonder quite how.

It’s not that there’s anything exactly wrong with this production of Wastwater, its just that there isn’t anything so right with it, that it couldn’t have been directed by a no-more-than-competent student director on the Edinburgh fringe.

Indeed, the varying ages of the actors and size of the space aside, that is precisely what this production resembles. Which highlights another double standard, insofar as if this had been a student production in Edinburgh, I’d have probably described its young director as “promising”. But there does come a point, perhaps after a thirty-odd year career, where one is entitled to expect a bit more than “promise”.

Playing in Schauspiel Köln’s temporary home in Halle Kalk – the same place where Mitchell’s Reise Durch die Nacht played in October – the most immediately striking thing is how oddly the piece fits into the space. In its defence, I don’t know whether this Wastwater premièred here, or was simply transferred lock, stock and barrel when refurbishment work on the Schauspiel proper began. If so, perhaps some leniency is required. Because here, the production seems utterly marooned in the space. Halle Kalk is essentially a big ballroom of a venue, painted black throughout, and with a single rake of seats at the rear, it just offers a massive black half-room end-on. Reise Durch die Nacht closed this down with a massive screen suspended from the ceiling, and with the visible playing area underneath pushed to the fore. As a result, there was none of this feeling of tiny actors stranded in the middle of a hangar.

Giesing’s set – a slight thing consisting of a single wall and odd runway, lit differently to imply the three places in Wastwater – looked utterly lost, but, if this was a simply transfer issue, I could perhaps see how the transition had just shafted something that might have been fine in the space for which it had been originally designed. I could imagine any number of theatre designs which I’d quite admired not standing up to this space.

[oh, bugger. Looking for a photo I discover “Giesing, 77, hat sich dafür eingesetzt, das Stück in der Halle Kalk aufzuführen.” (basically, really wanted the piece in this exact space) and their reviewer thinks “Gespielt wird auf schwarz bemalten Bretterbalken, die durch ihre reflektierende Farbe an Wasser erinnern. Ein tiefes Gewässer, das seine Geheimnisse bewahrt. Genau wie Stephens' Figuren.” (basically: playing the scenes in this blackness reflects the black water of the titular lake)] So, Giesing and I disagree about the effectiveness of the execution of his concept.

More distracting than the set, however, was the casting. The cast are, on the whole, not bad. I’m going to try to review this without just turning it into a point-by-point comparison with Mitchell’s production, but it is at times both incredibly difficult, and also a very useful reference point.

The most distracting thing about the new cast is trying to work out where they think they are. I’m used to this problem the other way around – watching British actors being totally, unbelievably English (or Scottish or Welsh), while claiming to be someone called Ranevskaya or Varya (for example), but this is the first time I’ve ever seen it the other way around. Perhaps partly because I haven’t seen a lot of German naturalism (there’s not a lot to see). But naturalism almost invites a whole different way of thinking about theatre; out goes appreciation of gesture, metaphor and concept, and in comes nit-picky gripes about whether someone’s got the right sort of taps in the sort of kitchen their character would have; whether the cigarette packet they’re holding is the right design for the year the play is set. Etc. Etc. Etc. Done right, I concede it can be incredibly satisfying to watch: when detail after detail is perfect. But here it’s a much broader problem. I just couldn’t work out if the characters were meant to be English or German. Rather, I suppose I appreciated that they were Germans playing English characters using German idioms, much as we Brits play characters in German or Russian plays onstage; mostly as English people we think are probably equivalent to the German or Russian in the play. But, being British, I suppose I was more attentive to the nuances than I might be to erroneous portrayals of Russians in Britain. And it was fascinating, just how *German* these English characters were. Perhaps the best example is in the second part. Where Paul Ready’s Mark was a jittery bag of Very English Nerves (if you want a crap shorthand, think: Hugh Grant in a nightmare) Christoph Luser here is pretty relaxed, chilled out, confident-without-showing-off – in short; not-atypically German. More interesting perhaps, is Judith Rosmair’s Lisa, who at a basic naturalistic level, makes a pretty unconvincing ex-heroin addict, ex-amateur porn coercee, policewoman. I’m sure there are policewomen who do possess lush, flowing tresses suggestive of a life spent dedicated to a rigorous haircare routine, but it doesn’t look especially practical or true-to-life. In short, Rosmair here looks like, well, like a film-star, not a policewoman.

Even more curious is Anja Lais’s Frieda in the first part. Of all the casting in Katie Mitchell’s production, perhaps the most interesting decision was her Frieda, Linda Bassett. In Stephens’s text, Frieda is described as tall, a line that was cut, and beautiful, which wasn’t. The latter description coming from part three’s psychotic Siân (I’m not going to rehash the plot here. You can read my original review in English, or German if you want a précis). In the context of Siân’s psychosis, it makes reasonable sense that the picture she paints of her erstwhile foster mother is untrue/misleading. Here, I wondered whether it had been notionally considered as a factor. It’s not that Anja Lais is strikingly beautiful, (Christ, this is awkward), but she could plausibly have been within the time-frame of the play. The way she is dressed is also interesting, in open-toed, flip-flop mules (you’ll see I know zip about shoes), pedal-pushers, and and low-cut top, she exudes an air of, well, the impolite way of putting it would be “trailer-trash chic” (I don’t make these terms up). And she seems a whole lot more touchy-feely with her foster son Harry (Carlo Ljubek), upto the point where she might be nursing some sort of straight-up sexual desire for him – certainly an available reading, but a surprise nonetheless. Although it was – perhaps typically, as a Brit – Frieda’s class, and indeed Englishness at all – that I spent more time trying to figure out. It’s not that it didn’t *work*, it just seemed a much more surprising decision, the couple seeming to have stumbled out of Summer Bay or a John Waters movie much more readily than anywhere around Heathrow (although part of this might have also been the difficulty of imagining a late June night in South East England in a vast, dark venue in Wintery Cologne, where you could virtually see your breath in front of your face...).

But, like I say, this is all just so much nit-picking. If I didn’t have all this space, and if I’d never seen the play before, then I’m sure this production would have at least conveyed a sense of what’s more important – i.e. the way the script works, the way that the three stories interlink, the way that it builds a picture of the whole world, a world troubled by globalisation, climate change, the internet, and how these things might have gradually contributed, or be contributed to by the now possibility of child abduction to order for money – the frightening world conjured by act three. Which, for the record, is both the least interesting by virtue of being the most successful interpretation in Giesing’s production. “Least interesting” only on account of the fact that I’d already seen the play twice, read it several more times, and still don’t technically really speak German, so I knew what was coming and what was happening, and as far as I was concerned, there it was happening. For all that, the tension is still tense, however.

In conclusion, in spite of a nearly two-hour running time, being performed in German, and containing literally not a single intentional deviation from the script (although, as the above description hopefully makes clear, the production does demonstrate that simple “serving the text” is in fact impossible, since this production was essentially doing exactly the same thing that Katie Mitchell’s production was doing, and yet the two things couldn’t have looked, felt or behaved more differently), this Wastwater remains totally engaging and watchable.

Harry (Carlo Ljubek) and Frieda (Anja Lais) in Act 1
Jonathan (Martin Reinke) and Sian (Pauline Knof) in Act 3

And, yes. These photos do make it look like the "concept" works better than it actually does. Thanks, photography...

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