Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Postcards aus Theatertreffen I

[written in transit between Berlin and Brussels, via London. No sleep. Apologies for likely errors]

Having read Meg Vaughan and Holger Syme’s (admittedly incomplete) dispatches from the first week of Theatertreffen, I was already slightly regretting not having made a proper plan sooner. Bloody cash-flow. Still, I was excited to be going.

It seems that the second full week of TT is duds and misfires week. Well, no, that’s not even remotely fair. I flew in too late to see Miet Warlop’s astonishing-sounding Mystery Magnet on the Monday night, but everyone was raving about it when I caught up with them the next day. “Like an hour-long action-painting”, helpfully suggested.

Still, I was excited to see both Chris Thorpe be interviewed by Simon Stephens and to then see him perform in his play There Has Possibly Been an Incident. I’ve already written a review of the actual performance for the Guardian, but its worth returning to the wider context and its reception. As it turned out, Thorpe’s piece wound up being something of a sacrificial lamb at this year’s Stückemarkt. The whole deal with Stückemarkt had, in previous years (possibly as many as the previous 53 or so years), been a competition open to any writer (under 35?) with an unperformed play. Ten German writers and ten international writers would win opportunities to have their winning works given a rehearsed reading, and the winner of this would get a production(? Published?). So, y’know, quite a major part of the new writing ecology in Germany.

This year, for the first time ever, apparently with no warning, and with only a somewhat shaky-sounding conceptual rationale, the powers-that-be decided to completely change the direction of Stückemarkt – this year there were only three chosen/selected works, each was already a full production, and each was chosen by a single/sole “celebrity” sponsor. Simon choosing Chris, Katie Mitchell choosing Warlop and Signa Köstler (of SIGNA frame) choosing Mona el Gammel. Now, apparently the main reason for this was wanting the new Stückemarkt to better reflect different possibilities of “authorship” – devised work, installation work, and so on. And I think the powers-that-be knew what they were doing when they selection Mitchell, Köstler and Stephens. Each artist has a signature style, there was an element, I suppose, of them “annointing” someone working in what they saw as a similar vein, but pushing the envelope more. This was certainly the tenor of the selected candidates – Köstler’s choice offered the installation HAUS//NUMMER/NULL, Miet Warlop – although perhaps the least obvious choice by a judge – offering a piece of work eeriely complete and closed-off in a way that one might imagine appealled to Mitchell’s own rigorous ways of working,combined with an originality and artistry that Mitchell also clearly prizes.

Stephens’s choice of Thorpe makes perfect sense to me. In a lot of ways they’re both remarkably similar and completely different. Thorpe isn’t just a writer, though, he is also a deviser and a performer, solo, in ensembles, and sometimes even as a “proper actor”. What might have been unfortunate in terms of positioning was the fact that Sam Pritchard’s production of There Has Possibly Been an Incident – pretty much universally praised in Edinburgh last year – takes more-or-less the exact form of a rehearsed reading. The actors hold scripts. They sit on chairs. They speak into microphones. Indeed, the first bit of ...Incident I ever saw – Thorpe reading just the Tienanmen Square section at Forest Fringe, only a day or so before Headlong released their video trailer for Chimerica, ironically – had pretty much the exact same set-up, albeit in a much smaller room, with a smaller audience, and none of the other bits. But in terms of actual performance mode, very similar.

In Britain, I think we account this sort of thing very *pure*, very *theatre*, very *stripped-back*. And, hell, I agree. I love this show. More Germans than I’d have liked seemed to have reservations, though. It was hard to tell if the reservations were really with the script, the production, or the unwelcome intervention into Stückemarkt that it represented. Certainly the more hostile reviews seem to take all three pieces together as an opportunity to grumble about the format-shift.

On the other hand, there were others who wondered if such a *direct* approached played off the text enough. Its literary qualities just being baldly stated rather than cunningly revealed. The text alone, some seemed to say, isn’t enough. You need something to counterpoint a piece this direct, otherwise the real pleasure of the text, and the facts of its difficulty, get glossed over, and it looks more agit-proppy than it actually is.

Obviously, being a reasonable man, I could see how a different production would bring out different qualities in the text. At the same time, I did feel slightly irritated and let-down. After all, God knows I spend enough time in Britain writing about how we need to expand our frame of theatrical reference and try to understand that other countries have different ways of doing things, and that just planting a Union Jack in *Theatre* and saying “this is how it must be done” is idiotic. So it saddens me when a load of Germans turn round and start sounding like the equivalent of Michael Billington at his least tolerant.

What was interesting was the extent to which I’d thought of ...Incident as quite “European” friendly in terms of its aesthetic. It was useful ans salutary to remember that “looking a bit like...” isn’t the same as “being plugged into the same set of thinking underpinning a production”.

This question of similarities and differences seemed to be a fascinating recurring theme throughout the week, possibly following on from my piece about British companies doing translated foreign plays, I found myself also thinking a lot more about foreign companies doing or even just watching British work, and wondering if German demands for opposition to the text and more irony were things we would actually benefit from importing. I was much less sure than I felt about the issue of trying to make European texts work in a British context.

I want to look at this further in my next post, where hopefully I’ll discuss the International Forum programme of discussions which took place the day after ...Incident.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Hyperion. Briefe eines Terroristen – Schaubühne

[seen 17/05/14]

Well, I don’t mind admitting, this had me well and truly stumped when I saw it on Saturday night. Admittedly seeing it with a hangover remedied by a pre-show glass of wine or two possibly wasn’t, in hindsight, the best way to approach a play of dense symbolic language (with frustratingly positioned surtitles) staged by former “enfant terrible” of the European stage, Romeo Castellucci. But even with no hangover and no wine, I think I’d have struggled with this.

Yes, there’s a basic problem of opacity. The staging opens with a modern flat having its door kicked in by armed police. Rooms are searched and them pretty much everything in the flat – furniture, books, appliances – are all chucked into a large heap in the middle of the room.

Not a word is spoken. And then we’re all kicked out of the theatre for ten minutes while they re-set the stage. Admirers of wilful perversity will be in their element. And I confess I was quite taken with the chutzpah, even if I could have lived with sitting in the theatre while they changed the set. But, obviously that’s not the point. I think the gesture is as much about the inconvenience to us as an audience as the thing we’d just watched.

It’s worth noting that I did quite wish the police had been directed a bit more thoroughly. Ideally by Katie Mitchell. It was quite clear that they were throwing stuff into the middle of the room because that’s what the performers had been told to do. There wasn’t any coherent sense of what they were doing in the flat or why. That could easily have been taken care of, so, yes, bit sloppy.

Anyway, once we return to the theatre we’re greeted with a big white/off-white box. More like the room for, say, Castellucci’s London than the ultra-realism of the last set, which we might associate more closely with, say, the first bit of Purgatory.

This is Castellucci’s take on Friedrich Hölderlin’s Hyperion. And I think this is where the problems really start. Hölderlin is a German Romantic poet of the late 1700s onward. The problem with German Romanticism is, put bluntly, how much of it sounds like Nazi rhetoric. All that beauty of nature and connection to the landscape stuff, that arguably found its fullest, most violent realisation in the Blut und Boden movement.

This resonance – easily discerned even just reading the surtitles, and yet more clearly listening to the words in German – is something that Castellucci has either ignored or else it simply didn’t resonate with him. Of course, being an Italian – whose fascism was a very different, futurist beast in the main – the resonance might just not have occurred at all. So it seems like I might be being unfair for having dwelt on it so strongly during the performance and immediately afterwards.

I think it may have been more helpful instead to have fixated upon the appended title – Briefe eines terroristen (letters of a terrorist). Here it seems that Castellucci is casting the central character of Hyperion – here “played” by an older woman and a naked younger woman painted white with her back to us, successively – as the titular terrorist. The basic story (summarised here by a director friend who also saw the show on Saturday) is: a guy loses everything, he looks again at what he used to love to find no beauty in it. Everything he thought was meaningful has become lifeless and formless. So he doubts beauty, he begins to hate men. And when you hate the world you either want to make it better or to kill it.

So on one level, you have this staging which could otherwise be a study of depression, here being co-opted for a dynamic dialogue – albeit at a snail’s pace stage-time-wise – with the concept of terrorism. It was not clear to me whether the terrorist is the state or a “proper” terrorist. Or whether it is a chimera, ineffectually combated with much trumpeting and alarum, but little discernible effect. The concept is infinitely more interesting in the re-thinking, post-fact, than it was to watch in the theatre, for me.

Indeed, the show spawned about several really fertile conversations:

Peter M. Boenisch noted: “It might confirm that he engaged more from a Hölderlian perspective with the Hyperion myth, not the context of H. BUT he makes the link to the 9/11 bombings and prints a manifesto by Muhammad Atta there. So it links Hölderlin’s aesthetic absolutism with contemporary fundamentalist terrorism, leaving the C20th out. There is also a detailed and articulate statement by the dramaturg. One of those cases where some would say you need the programme to explain, but I’d rather suggest that performance and programme book are two streams for articulating a shared underlying idea. And here, it’s got a lot to do with beauty as the ultimate and absolute. So for our discussion, it comes in with further arguments and ammunition for both sides...”

While, in a wider discussion of the fascist aesthetic apparently at play, in response to Jana Percovic’s suggestion that thanks to the different character of Italian fascism from German Nazism, Holger Syme offered that: “In visual art, there isn’t really the same link between avant-garde and fascisms in Germany as there is in Italy (or in England). But in poetry, there is – it’s not like Brecht et al. dominated everything. There's a lot of Nationalist, hyper-aestheticized, quite cultish stuff happening in German literature in the 1920s and early 30s – the Stefan George circle being a major breeding ground for all that stuff, and I think a lot of poets saw the Nazis as a necessary cleansing/productively destructive force...”

On the other hand, it looks to me, like Castellucci really just hadn’t felt the same resonances as I had. Perhaps another thing to take into account was the question of how the show might have felt in a different context – i.e. if I’d seen it directed by Castellucci for, say, Avignon. And maybe not in German. Would I then have felt the same deep and real discomfort as I did in the heart of West Berlin on Saturday?

Are we seriously to take Castellucci’s appropriation of the German romanticism as a key to depicting Islamist fundamentalist terrorism, and the equal and opposite terrorism deployed against it by the drone-deploying militaries of “the West”, even as it overlooks the topography of terrors played out throughout the C20th? Perhaps it makes a sort of sense. War is different now. Militarism is different now. Even power and control, and their ideological underpinnings are now practised differently. *Perhaps* Castellucci *is* onto something. I’m not sure. I still found the text difficult to take in the actual moment. And the staging too elliptical to offer any immediate key. But, perhaps that level of difficulty is also something to be cherished.

Ultimately, I don’t feel up to making a judgement call on it. I will be interested to read further perspectives on the piece.

Peter Boenisch offers this jumping off point: “For Hans-Thies Lehmann, this production even exemplifies the future of tragedy – as (post-dramatic) experience of the spectator, not mere dramatic collision of a fiction conflict (and we see where the cover painting of Lehmann’s new opus magnum Tragödie und dramatisches Theater was inspired by, for German readers the Hölderlin chapter in there goes well with this production)... Not sure whether I’d go that far, mainly for my doubts about the aestheticisation of what Andrew identified as nascent bud of fascist desire in Hölderlin’s idealism. Lots more to think through. Let's see what [Castellucci] comes up with next year, same place...”

Which I think is hard to improve upon. So, yes, plenty to think about. Let’s see what happens next...

Friday, 16 May 2014

Ohne Titel #1 – Volksbühne

[“Der Spaß am sinnfreien Herumblödeln kennt aber keine TheorieStefan Bock, Freitag]

Once in a while I guess it’s healthy for me to see something in Germany that I absolutely loathe. And obviously fate had decided that the effects of Don Giovani. Letzte Party and the Deutsches Theater’s catastrophic German language première of In der Republik des Glücks last year were wearing off and I needed a top-up.

Herbert Fritsch, who is also responsible for last year’s Theatertreffen show Murmel Murmel – which I had previously been quite keen to see – has this year made a wholly original show from scratch. (Yes, sure, when the only “text” for last year’s performance is an art text where the word “murmel” (marble) is repeated a number of times, there’s not much distinction, but...).

He’s called what he’s made “an opera”. And in the sense that an episode of Teletubbies *could* be called “an opera”, he’s absolutely right. No, that’s not quite accurate. It starts off a bit more like a slapstick pastiche of, well, possibly of something. Plastic be-wigged and heavily made-up glittery musicians enter the pit and make as if to start. There’s some pissing about with a piano stool, then a lot of earnest-seeming squeaking, honking, and banging. Worryingly, it’s not not reminiscent of Helmut Lachenmann’s Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern (The Little Match Girl). After this silly intro, the “orchestra” skip off to reappear as the on-stage cast in new, equally hideous costumes.

For possibly up to the first half hour I entertained the possibility that this could be the most elaborate, sustained and savage satire of Robert Wilson outside his own work. Gradually, as the thing turned into a series of solo-pieces, cameos and gurning – all performed to grim Latin lounge music accompaniment – this possibility looked increasingly unlikely. (Is it even worth mentioning that Ruth Rosenfeld (above) could out-Miley Cyrus Miley Cyrus in the sticking-her-tongue-out stakes? No.)

The programme of Theatertreffen describes the show thus:

“A squeaky wooden tone throws the orchestra and its conductor Ingo Günther for a loop. But then they start making their sounds, with crinkled-up cellophane, electric guitars, percussion, recorders or a triangle. They tinkle, clunk, cha-cha and rattle. A 1950s saloon orchestra, decked up as for a revue. The twelve performers are lounging on a settee – this thing from another (art) planet. They are resilient and refractory, like their inventor Herbert Fritsch. The only prop is this couch of so much more than human scale. The fidgeting creatures are sitting on it, hanging from it, stuck to it, they push off from it or crack their skulls on it. Fritsch, son of nonsense and primal creator of chaos, offspring of Chaplin, Valentin and Vaudeville, deploys his actors like mechanical bodies. This is captivatingly puzzled out, organized and staged: Nonsense, yes, but certainly not stupid. These children of buffoonery are certainly no conformists; they are original sex maniacs and players, driven by the directions of the music and of Fritsch, this worker of theatre-miracles.”

Which will do, except for the way it fails to note that it is the most knuckle-whiteningly irritating thing in the universe.

I’ll concede that is purely a matter of taste. A lot of people round me (German people, the traitors) were chuckling and guffawing happily away. God knows what at or why. The feeling that it was a satire or pastiche of something never quite fully evaporates. But it seems mostly to be a postmodern defence – a parody of itself. A half-assed refusal to commit even to its own paltry “fun”.

In conclusion: a slightly executed 90 minutes of mugging-without-conviction to dreadful music.

Except that this was somehow deemed better by someone somewhere than Alles Weitere...

So, y’know, not German theatre’s finest hour.

TBH, if it didn’t feel necessary to demonstrate that sometimes I have a really strong reaction against stuff here as well as sometimes loving it I think I’d have happily forgotten I ever saw it within about five minutes of having seen it. That said, we did find a bar within ten minutes stroll of the theatre selling two glasses of red wine for €3.60 (cheapest round *ever*?), and which gave us all (a group of four) some rather nice veggie curry. For free. So Berlin pretty much redeemed itself immediately. Still, odd piece. I guess I should take the advice of that bloke in the Guardian and try to understand it better, except there didn’t seem to be anything to understand. Just a sense of humour you either have or don’t have, I guess.

I might have a read round some reviews and try to fathom what the hell anyone else saw in it before the end of the weekend, but I don’t hold out much hope.

Die Letzten Zeugen – Haus der Berliner Festspiele

[seen: 14/05/14]

Die Letzten Zeugen (The Last Witness) is a verbatim piece from Vienna's Burgtheater about Holocaust survivors, made by its recently disgraced artistic director Matthias Hartmann and Doron Rabinovici. What marks it out from many other such pieces is the fact that sitting on stage are seven survivors of the Holocaust.

On one level, this puts the piece “beyond criticism”.  At every other level, however, it intensifies the need for scrutiny. It is not enough to put some survivors of the Holocaust on a stage and to call it theatre. Indeed, it feels incredibly suspect to do so. Of course, that's not what Hartmann and Rabinovici have done, so it's worth describing in detail what is present.

The stage is hung with two large cinema screen-style gauzes. One large one toward the front of the stage, and a smaller one toward the rear. In between these two gauzes a woman (periodically) sits at a table writing on an endless sheet of paper that runs left to right across the whole stage. Occasionally a live-feed video camera trained on the paper shows us what she is writing projected on the fore-screen.

On the right hand side of the stage, four actors from the Burgtheater ensemble are seated. At the right hand front of the stage is a simple, wooden lectern. In the centre of the front stage is a similar perspex stand.

At the very back of the stage, behind the second gauze, are eight chairs in which the seven remaining Holocaust survivors are seated. One chair is now empty, marking the fact that one of the original cast has died since the production began last year.

How the piece works is that the actors take it in turns to stand at the lecturn and read the intercut testimonies of the survivors, while a(nother) live feed video camera scrutinizes the present-day face of the person whose testimony, with the sharply lit result projected, in black and white, onto the rear gauze screen. On the fore-screen an assemblage of personal and stock archive photos show scenes of pre-Anschluss Austria, Nazi soldiers on the streets, and later the familiar “Arbeit Macht Frei” signs and striped uniforms of the concentration camps.

In this, it is a staggeringly muted production. Of course, in the abstract “muted” sounds like it might be (could be, should be?) the only possible register. What need is there for flashy stage effects or emoting? Except, there are those effects – two screens worth of live-feed, the woman at the desk, even the foregrounded pretence of the actors “reading” the testimonies. All these are effects designed specifically to signify everything from the unimpeachable truths on show, to the degree of reverence for them required. It's no accident, perhaps, that the lectern recalls a pulpit. On the other hand, given the subject matter, it also feels inappropriate.

For my money, there kept on being these strange, small semiotic misfires. Like the fact that the survivors were seated at the very back of the stage. Like the fact their faces were painstakingly scrutinised in extreme close-up by an unblinking camera. Like the fact that their words had been wholly appropriated and were being spoken by Austrian actors. One of whom especially – Peter Knaack (last seen by me playing Peter Handke in Katie Mitchell's Wunschloses Unglück) – happened to be tall, broad-shouldered, and chisel-jawed: handsome, with his fair hair side-parted and short at the back and sides. You see what I'm driving at here? You see why it maybe felt a little problematic?

Of course, disconcerting Aryanism notwithstanding, the main reason for this was expediency. The six remaining survivors are aged between 80 and 100, and are now mostly frail. It would be impractical – impossible even – for them to each deliver their entire testimony live every time the piece played.

In the latter half of the piece, one by one, the survivors come to the centre-stage lectern and deliver some words themselves. A personal reflection on the here and now, and a message to the future. They are then led off by one of the actors. Even this has the unfortunate effect that everyone Jewish on stage being removed, one-by-one, by someone Austrian.

Appalling as it sounds, I felt left quite cold by the production. I'm sure it's partly cultural, but the delivery to me just seemed almost impossibly matter-of-fact. The stage-craft far too staid, and uninspiring of anything at all. And the placement of the Holocaust survivors felt suspect and troubling.

But then, there's also the question of context. No matter how many pompous pieces I write for the Guardian about trying to go out of our way to understand other national traditions better, the one thing I was never going to be in that theatre on Wednesday night was German or Austrian. There is a shared history, an inheritance, which I will never really be able to experience. I can sit there, British and comparatively guilt-free, and cavil about dramaturgy and stage-craft, but I know what my grandparents were doing during WWII, and it wasn't this. That's the blunt end game here. This material, no matter how it's presented, had an astonishing effect on the majority of those present. I don't think I've ever seen a German audience give a standing ovation before. And this wasn't simply an act of approval or applause, it was about a profound gratitude for the gesture made by these survivors of unimaginable horror, that they would stand up in front of the children and grandchildren of their torturers and murderers and offer something that is ultimately a message of hopefulness, even as they observe that Austria is still riddled with anti-Semitism and citizens largely failing to take any responsibility for the country's part in the Holocaust.

There Has Possibly Been an Incident – Haus der Berliner Festspiele

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Staging translated plays: appendix

[mostly a description of what I'm talking about extracted from David Barnett's briliant chapter Performing Dialectics in an Age of Uncertainty, or: Why Post-Brechtian ≠ Postdramatic in Postdramatic Theatre and the Political]

Oddly, I'd had the piece which I wrote for the Guardian in my mind for a while before they asked me to write something on precisely that subject. The impetus for that, however, had come frm the book I'm currently reading (for “reading” read “dipping in and out of when I get a moment”), Postdramatic Theatre and the Political.

I had been thinking I'd either wait until I reviewed the book, or else would use this below passage in blog-bound version of the piece that ended up being written for the Guardian. But now it seems to make sense to just publish it as a really excellent example of what I mean by “a different way of approaching the text”. The extract is from David Barnett's chapter, Performing Dialectics in an Age of Uncertainty, or: Why Post-Brechtian ≠ Postdramatic.

I've skipped straight ahead to the description (and the one bit of bold is mine):

I shall first discuss a production of [Brecht's Mr]Puntila [and his man Matti] at the Berliner Ensemble, directed by Einar Schleef, which premièred on 17 February 1996, as an example of a post-Brechtian reinterpretation of the play...

Heiner Müller invited Einar Schleef to direct Puntila at the BE, something which initially left him nonplussed. Schleef was well known, at the BE at least, as the director of Wessis in Weimar (Westerners in Weimar) in 1993, a brutal confrontation between stage and auditorium in which large choruses bellowed texts on the subject of German reunification. His aggressive choral theatre appeared to have little in common with the dialectical humour of Puntila until he went to the archive and read one of Brecht’s first versions, written in 1940, that is, shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War. Puntila was inspired by the stories of Hella Wuolijoki, but at this crucial historical phase Brecht also looked back to the end of the First World War in Finland.

At this time, the class struggle manifested itself in a bloody civil war between left-wing forces inspired by revolutionary Russia and right-wing militarists from Finland, the Protection Corps, who prevailed. Brecht’s early drafts, then, emphasised Finland’s traumatic and class-riven past and were thus no longer that light; by 1948, these references were much reduced.

Franz Wille notes: ‘Instead of the knowing comic look back to the victory over the disasters of war and Hitler in 1948–49, [one finds] the look forward from 1940 into the inescapable catastrophe’. Wille’s reading points to Schleef’s materialist aesthetics: for all the formal precision and abstraction in performance, which I will discuss presently, the starting point was concrete and historical. As Ute Scharfenberg notes: ‘Schleef ’s discovery of the play’s “language of the exile” offers him an important point of departure for his production’s rationale’. That is, the earlier version allowed Schleef the opportunity to disorientate the audience by uncovering impulses later expunged and making them the basis for a new approach to the material.

In addition, Schleef was interested in the treatment of the female characters in the earlier version. He was keen to counter Eva’s relegation as a mere appendage to the male leads in the later version and he contended that Eva was not always an Aunt Sally figure in the play: ‘Eva is a Miss Julie with high ambitions for her own education. [...] But Brecht turned all the women into idiots’. Schleef sought to reintegrate the female characters; he noted the importance of Puntila’s housekeeper, Hanna, in the earlier version and viewed her as a concrete antagonist to her master. He also insisted that the two other female members of Puntila’s staff , Fina and Laina, were on stage more frequently, oft en observing the action and maintaining their presence.

The other important change of emphasis, from a textual point of view, was the role of Matti, the usual antagonist. Gunther Heeg writes that this conflict was in fact a convenient way of demonstrating proletarian superiority in the later version: ‘The dialectic of master and servant is replaced by the cooperation between the author and a character who represents him in the play: Mr Brecht and his dramaturgical lackey Matti.’ Matti’s superiority is ideological and loads the dialectic in favour of the oppressed underdog. A part of the post-Brechtian impulse is a desire to retain the dialectic while opening it up in all its complexity beyond the reach of ideological pressures. Schleef thus underplayed and re-functioned Matti’s role as a privileged character. Eva and Hanna became more central figures, while Matti assumed a wholly different role.

The play itself was radically rearranged. Schleef divided it up into four sections, in which, for example, the first section included material from the standard version’s first, third, fourth and eighth scenes.
The diffuse texts ran into each other without a nod to the spectators and consequently assaulted them as text rather than as the basis for a coherent plot.
The logical unfolding of the Fabel gave way to the experience of the words, shouted or declaimed by Puntila for the most part or by the choruses. Such a presentation of the text opened it up for the audience – it became linguistic material, as one might expect in postdramatic theatre, yet here the dynamics of delivery were clearly demarcated; a power relation lay at their centre, and so the text did not float entirely freely as text, but was linked to the dialectical tensions at the heart of Schleef’s reading. The openness of the dialectic was also evident in the use of parataxis, the equal valorisation of the scenic action, a quality Lehmann also associates with processes of de-hierarchisation in postdramatic theatre.

The production had, for example, several finales, one was never sure quite when it was over. This extended to the encore when the cast, in strict formation, sang one of the songs from the play that did not appear in the production itself. One notes Schleef’s deliberate obfuscation of what belonged and did not belong to the production, something that was echoed in his portrayal of the Puntila figure, as we shall see.

Esther Slevogt found the following structure running through the production as a whole: ‘Every image gives birth to its own counter-image.’ Yet [this didn't just] offer a series of permutations to the audience; instead, the use of contrast highlighted the manifold possibilities of the dialectic that ran through the production.

Schleef’s return to the more historically painful text was signalled from the opening of the production. Eva delivered an anecdote, usually told by Sly-Grog Emma later in the eighth scene ‘Tales from Finland’, before the safety curtain. The conventional prologue to the play consists of a speech given by the Milkmaid, which sets the scene, and perhaps the first verse of the ‘Puntila song’, which introduces the main character. Instead Eva told the story in the first person, not the third as in the text, of her visiting Athi, one of the Communists kept in a prison camp but who refuses his mother’s food, despite his great hunger, because she had to beg for it from her mistress. It is clear that Eva is not the speaker of the text, because she herself is socially a ‘mistress’, and so the reliability of the signs onstage is destabilised from the very outset. That Eva delivers the speech, however, focuses attention on the character and confers an importance on her which she never loses. The short story also initiates themes that will recur throughout this version of the play: that social conflict has led to suffering, that class relations are defining categories, that the most wretched can still off er resistance.

Yet while Eva was important, Puntila was essential. Dressed in formal white tie, he controlled almost everything on stage with a series of gestures, dominating the production with roars and shouts. Consequently, even Puntila’s more sympathetic speeches sounded forced and insincere. Schleef himself played Puntila, after his first choice for the role had to withdraw through injury, and so the character Puntila was conflated with a real director, who, on occasion, would also give directions to the actors around him. In more conventional meta-theatre, levels are clearly demarcated, such as in the play-within-a-play in Hamlet or the consciously fictional figures in Six Characters in Search of an Author. This meta-dramatic addition created instability in the central character and the production as a whole, as the audience was never sure who was talking or, rather, shouting. The grotesque presentation certainly registered with reviewers: ‘Schleef performs himself. Not just as a loud mouth and a dry tee-totaler in a dinner jacket, [but] also as the generalissimo on the director’s collective farm’. The exaggerated figure acknowledged the reality of the theatre as well as the fictionality of the play in a portrayal that never settled in either place.

Puntila the individual was surrounded by choruses, as was often the case in Schleef ’s work. Matti was no longer one person but several and was presented as an instrumentalised extension of Puntila’s will. At the beginning of the second section, the Mattis performed vigorous physical exercises which reviewers, and doubtlessly spectators, identified with Nazi military training camps for young people. The Mattis dutifully obeyed, were visibly tired, fell over from time to time, and offered the audience the experience of real exertion that lasted for several minutes. ‘Matti’ was no longer Puntila’s opponent, but traced a brutal masculine arc across class boundaries in which the worker was not imbued with an implicit immunity to his ‘class enemy’, but could be canalised for violent action.

However, with the opening monologue in mind, we note that Schleef offered the audience contrasting positions and did not suggest an inevitability to the dialectic of servitude and defiance. The women also formed choruses. In the first instance, they declaimed the speeches normally given by the women of the local area, but they also contributed, like the male chorus, to other dialogues, conveying collective power which, depending on the speech, may either support Puntila or act as a counterpoint. Both male and female choruses were also carefully choreographed so that a gestural language emerged, whose precision made it readable, in the same way as Brecht intended his Gestus to function. Yet here, the gestures did not necessarily have a referential relationship to reality. Instead, the language developed from the production itself, provoking the audience to make connections between the elements of a sign system that had been carefully formulated.

What emerges from this consideration of the production is that Schleef was very much concerned with political issues as articulated in dialectical terms. However, the components of the dialectic were given great freedom to show their myriad possibilities, something located in Schleef ’s systematic demolition of denotation in favour of connotation. This had the effect of withdrawing onstage value judgements from the performed material.

More negative reviewers believed that Schleef was paying lip service to the far right: ‘Brecht’s Volksstück has become an antique and fascistic motorway pile-up on a grand scale in a freestyle of Greco-Roman forms.’ [Michael Berger in Die Woche] Schleef did not limit the power of the fascist imagery he employed, but this was hardly a tacit expression of support. Instead, he allowed the full implications of such barbarity to be presented on stage. While one reviewer noted that ‘somehow, somewhere, everything’s connected to class consciousness and the class struggle’ others were more specific. Brecht expert Ernst Schumacher wrote that he considered the production ‘the most radical realisation of an epic theatre [...]. In all [...], this production demands in the strongest of terms that one think anew about Brechtian performance, a task to which no other theatre is more especially called than the Berliner Ensemble’.


See what I mean about a radically different way of treating a text? And this was 18 years ago. What I find fascinating, though, is that way that the “academic” reading of dialectics in the production doesn't seem like a fanciful imposition, but a thoroughgoing understanding of what's already at play. This is something else I wanted to bring out when I talk about how translating just the words isn't even halfway toward translating the culture from which they sprung along with them. Not only do you lose the original “poetic” resonances, you also lose the cultural resonances, and the way the words operate together in a (relatively) shared public understanding.

Funnily (or unsurprisingly), it's been a conversation I've been having over and over again here at Theatertreffen, which I think will probably merit another blogpost – probably starting to think about translations travelling in the other direction – out of English and into German...

Annoyingly, there doesn't seem to be any footage of the production on YouTube (1996, innit – the year David Hare's Skylight at the National Theatre Cottesloe and the Wyndham's won the Olivier Award for Best New Play, for a bit of make-you-spit context), so here's an extract from Schleef's seminal world première production of Elfriede Jelinek's Ein Sportstück (1998). Enjoy.

Guardian: staging translated plays