Friday 14 March 2014

Faust I – Thalia Theater, Hamburg

[written for Exeunt]

Nicholas Stemann’s Faust (I and II) has already pretty much won all the prizes going. It went to Theatertreffen in 2012. It’s been to Avignon and Salzburg. And apparently the eight hour whole is really something (and, annoyingly, part two is reportedly better than part one. But Part One was what was on when I was in Hamburg...).

If you want some (annoyingly condescending) notes about Goethe’s Faust I, then my blog about Michael Thalheimer’s Deutsches Theater production, which I saw in 2010, is very explain-y.

As it happens, watching Stemann’s production – my second German production of Goethe’s Faust I – really shed a lot of light on what Thalheimer had done, and likewise, having already seen Thalheimer’s gave me much more of an appreciation of what Stemann was up to. I guess it’s like seeing your second Hamlet or Macbeth. You start to appreciate “the play” (by which I mean “the text”) as a place where lots of different people can come and find lots of different things.

Stemann’s Faust I is, for my money, astonishingly good, then ok/a bit meh, then astonishingly good again.

It opens on a more-or-less empty stage. Ok, there are a couple of data-projectors at the back and lights, and the odd table, but the stage of the Thalia feels so vast and cavernous here that these occasional items get completely swallowed up in the blackness of the whole.

Enter Sebastian Rudolph, who is ostensibly playing Faust (don’t worry, I’ll get back to “ostensibly”). He’s carrying (or picks up) a copy of the ubiquitous Reclam Faust I (those little yellow editions, more immediately recognisable than even a classic white and orange Penguin). He reads from it. Quietly. He wander round the stage. He wanders into a corner and reads out loud inaudibly to himself.

There is then a beautiful moment where he places the book upright, open toward the audience, and walks away from it. It’s like that threat to “let the play speak for itself” made manifest. *Of course* the *play* *says* *nothing*. He returns to the book. He rips out its pages and manipulates it like a sock puppet’s mouth, giving it a silly little voice. This read – perhaps only to me – like a giddy rush of piss-taking out of the idea of letting the text speak for itself. And also like a brilliant comment on the very heavy literary-ness/weight of literary expectation of the text.

He shouts text at the audience. He rips the pages out of the book. He drags on a large door. He reverses the door to reveal a large sheet of paper. He brings on tubes of paint and squirts the paper with colours. He slams bits of the book into the paint. He slams himself into the paint. Pages of the book stick to his body. I am reminded of Simon Russell Beale’s suggestion that acting is a sort of live literary criticism. This is deconstruction rather than Leavisite close-reading.

Rudolph is brilliant. Think Scott Shepherd/Mark Rylance brilliant. For some alchemical reason you get totally drawn into whatever he’s saying or doing. This is a production which likes to keep things moving and inventive, but with Rudolph taking you through it’s that mile easier to go along with.

For something like the first forty-five minutes to an hour, Rudolph/Faust is alone on stage. For a lot of that time, Goethe’s Faust is also alone, but there are interlocutors – just as there are in the Marlowe. People come to his scholarly room to bug him. Rudolph does all these, in different voices. It’s a tour-de-force without ever feeling either self-indulgent (on the part of either director or actor) or one-man-show-y. Indeed, the solitude itself feels like a clear, and astute dramaturgical decision.

Then Mephistopheles arrives. First as a projection of a poodle on the back wall (Stemann’s decided to take “poodle” at modern face-value) (oh, if you didn’t read my other Faust review, in the Goethe version Faust first encounters Mephistopheles in the form of a large black “poodle” (which was apparently generic for a medium-sized dog then, not the weird small lapdog things we mean) which follows him home). Then as Philipp Hochmair, dragging on an identical desk, chair and mic stand to Faust’s. Sitting down with an identical Reclam Faust edition and beginning to read from the beginning, speeding through, perhaps until the speech of two are is in sync and then in dialogue. It’s a lovely moment.

From the get-go you have the impression of Mephistopheles almost as Faust’s alter-ego. They are even dressed identically to begin with, and spend much of their stage time edging closer and closer together, even sharing a protracted stage-snog at one point, which seems to have a lot less to do with some sort of homoerotic desire than the fact they just couldn’t physically get any closer to each other and then just start eating each other’s faces. It’s more like an attempt to crawl inside each other and occupy the same space than lust (ok, maybe extreme lust is a bit like that too, but, well, this doesn’t feel lusty). Perhaps it was partly the lingering memory of Dissolved. But Stemann does seem to have organised his Faust as three hour long sections, each dominated by a different character. Indeed, only three actors appear. There’s Rudolph, Hochmair and Patrycia Ziółkowska as Gretchen. I first saw Ziółkowska in Die Brüder Karamasow (“a study in astonishing stage presence”) and then in Hedda Gabler a week later (“absolutely knocks it out of the park... astonishing”), where I remarked that she was: “completely unrecognisable from Die Brüder Karamasow”...

Well, she did it again. Ziółkowska must be the most adaptable actor I have ever seen, suiting perfectly each production she appears in. Never (so far, that I recall) repeating a bit of shtick that gets her through her career. No tics, no tried-and-tested back-up way of acting, and not even a look that carries from one show to the next. Indeed, here she’s so muted, understated, here as to seem almost neutral at first. And she has, even within this performance, an apparent ability to shape-shift just by means of her physicality (and without *ever* doing crappy “physical theatre” things). I reckon she might be a bit of a genius, to be honest.

Anyway, in the Hochmair/Mephistophiles section the rather beautiful preoccupation with deconstruction and stage-craft is dispensed with in favour of rather more showy stage effects and a bunch of videos (not even live-feed ones, but recorded ones. When did anyone last use one of those?). It’s all a bit like Complicite’s Master and Margarita, or McBurney’s recent ENO Magic Flute. Which is to say, perfectly good, but not nearly as inspiring as the first half. It feels like there’s *a lot of business to get through* in the second hour and it’s all noses to the grindstone to trot out some pretty trope-y nightclub scenes for Auerbachs Keller and the Hexenküche. There’s a supporting cast of dancers and musicians (soprano, piano/organ, violin – classy musicians, mark you), and, oh, men in boiler suits and all sorts of stuff. But, really, it’s just *fine*. I found myself missing the charismatic lit.crit. approach.

Then there’s the scene where Faust sees Gretchen on the street. First delivered by Gretchen (although they’re Faust’s words) straight after her being a witch in the previous scene, it’s kind of mesmerising all of a sudden all over again...

[and the interval is here, but...]

After the interval the last bit is briefly repeated and we see the third part, Gretchen’s tragedy, if anything, being played out. And I think Stemann, for all that his costumes might be a bit male-gaze-y, (although no more so, less so, in fact, than Anne Lenk’s for Republik), manages to convey this. That claiming the various misfortunes which lead to Gretchen’s child-murdering and imprisonment. (Hang on. In the Thalheimer one she cut her own throat. Where the hell did that come from? Bloody hell. Anyway...).

This last act/hour is pretty punishing. It is, after all, just a desperate, squalid love affair followed by lies, betrayal, and death after death. And in such a short period of time (comparatively), and without part two after, it ends very starkly indeed – with just a neon sign saying “Ende erster teil”.

So, yes, seeing just the first half of a production plainly designed to play the entire thing feels slightly inconclusive. That said, there’s much here to admire. Mostly in the first and third hours. If only there were two intervals so one could cut out the middle man.

[It’s tempting to stick a kind of note on the end here noting that after two weeks of theatre-going in Germany I’ve still only seen one animal head and no nudity at all. At the this rate, we’re going to have to start re-thinking our stereotypes. It’s also worth noting that the performances in this Faust was significantly more like “British” acting than those you often see in Berlin. I had a conversation last week with a director-friend (apropos the current regime at the DT, which came in from Hamburg) who proposed that Hamburg acting is quite different to Berlin acting... Of which, more another time, perhaps.]

[on another note, annoyingly there aren't any decent whole-stage photos.  Also annoyingly, these were probably taken at the premiere in 2011, and stuff has possibly altered/refined since then...]

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