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...

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