Saturday, 7 June 2014

Postcards aus Theatertreffen II (guest round-up)

[interim report. (now posted stupidly late)]

As I mentioned in my last Theatertreffen piece, I missed pretty much all the work in the first week (I’d already seen Tauberbach at HAU1 and Gotscheff’s Iwanow years ago at the Volksbühne – as well as the usual “ten best” of the season, this year’s TT also ran a small retrospective of “Gotscheff’s Greatest (Berlin) Hits (which are still in rep.)”) so this piece is just a round-up of my favourite coverage from other sources, namely the brilliant dialectic between Holger Syme (publishing only as Facebook updates) and Megan Vaughan posting on her blog in her own diametrically opposite style. I’ve also included a bit of the to-and-fro over Castorf’s new Celine adaptation between Holger and Peter Boenisch – basically because it’s too interesting to restrict to their FB ‘friends’ (and besides, Facebook is basically public now, right?).

I enjoyed the divergence of the two styles a whole lot, and quite missed it when they didn’t see the same shows. What I think I valued most was the intellectual content playing off against what were mostly total sensory experience reports. That and the fact that both writers pin their feelings to the mast. There is a tendency in German criticism to not really say what you really think, or feel – or if there isn’t, it doesn’t always translate. Sure, it sometimes happens (see my last piece about the critical reception of There Has Possibly Been an Incident), but for the most part, it feels like descriptions happen, and critical theories are invoked, but no one is all that interested in the basics like “what was it like to be there” and “let’s think what this *means* in a wider context” (which, thinking about it, might be two of the things I really look to a review for), let alone any discernable “rating”. (Thank you, Germany, for making me actually miss a star-rating.)

So, here’s the stuff:

HS: “The late, great Dimiter Gotscheff’s production of Ivanov at the Volksbühne tonight: one of those theatre events I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

“Not easy to describe or talk about, let alone analyze -- I'm not enough of a Chekhovian, for starters. Yes, it had that remarkable balance of the hilarious and the boundlessly sad. I’ve come to recognize the phrase “I don't understand that at all” as the hallmark of Chekhov’s dramaturgy (or at least of German theatre’s key angle on Chekhov). Wonderful performances of a very particularly Volksbühne kind: at one point, I thought “This is just like Baroque Opera – they’re turning two lines into a spoken-word da capo aria!”

“But the most remarkable, astonishing really, thing about this show is the set of fog. I'll gush about this on the blog later, but here's the killer moment: at the end of the play, all the characters but Ivanov come down to the edge of the stage and the fog flows in behind them, out into the auditorium, getting so thick that suddenly the stage is gone; and then the actors are in the same space as us, except above our heads. We suddenly were in the set. I’ve never been embraced by a theatre before -- until tonight.”

Or, as Meg has it:

“...[T]hese German theatre shows have a touch of the Magic Roundabouts about them. ‘Cause, y’know, that narrator guy just watched all the old French ones and made up his own stories, didn’t he? Did you know that Chekhov’s Ivanov is about a guy whose whole family goes mad when his magic shoes lose their powers? Yep...”

Sticking with Chekhov, Schauspiel Stuttgart’s Onkel Wanja seems, curiously, to ellicit a bit more of a unified response:

Meg, for example:

“..the neon set was so bright that the surtitles were kinda hard to read and I kept getting distracted by all the madness onstage. A guy shooting morphine into a giant foam frog, a giant neon Ferris wheel-cum-spaceship (that did a cool optical illusion every time you blinked, like a record skipping), a girl in a light-up dress singing Florence and the Machine, a woman dancing on a car like Kate Bush in a gold unitard...”

HS: [I’m starting with a bit cut from the end of para 3]

“There’s a huge star/sunburst thing of neon strips that descends from the fly, tilts upright behind the actors, then tilts forward a bit. Can’t say I got what that meant.

The first half, I thought, was kind of brilliant: taking its cue from the universal ennui in the play, everything on stage was about slowness and emptiness. (The show started with Elena challenging an audience member to a game of badminton -- an appropriately slow game of badminton. That seemed like a good visual metaphor to me: what's slower than a shuttlecock?) A beat-up old white Volvo circled the stage, endlessly, at snail's pace. And if Borgmann was taking the text at its word in that regard, he was also staging it almost word for word – very unusually for a German production.

Everything changed after the interval: suddenly the text became a plaything. Sonya speaks a heavily cut version of Act 4 all on her own, at the edge of the stage (in a pretty fantastic performance by Katharine Knap). Then Vanya delivers a soliloquy that’s from a Chekhov short story (“Fear”). Then some of the stuff from Act 3 happens. Then the play is more or less over: the last image is of Sonya clipping Vanya's toe-nails; the last sound is an “Ouch” from him when she cuts him.

During the Q&A, the director explained that the first half is all exterior, the second half interior -- specifically, in Sonya's and Vanya's minds. Conceptually, I get that idea, but I don't think it read on stage – at least not to me. There was also a really striking (if problematic) clash of acting styles, with some actors doing very intensely psychological work, others doing deliberately over-the-top and highly gestural work, and still others hovering somewhere in between. Much of that work was good, impressive, compelling on its own; but I'm not sure the clash quite worked. They defended the choice during the Q&A (so it *was* a choice), but I still have my doubts and questions about it. Then again, I like that this was so clearly Sonya's Vanya. I think that's an interesting angle.”

Holger didn’t see Munich Kammerspieles Fegelfeuer in Ingolstadt. Meg’s review, on the other hand, is a thing on immense beauty.

“I needed a Big Mac and another 10 hours sleep and instead I was watching this live nightmare. These terrifying, bewitched mannequins holding a seance. Brainwashed, manipulated by a recording. It was awful awful awful. It was a masterpiece. I hope I never have to go through that ever again. You have to see it.”

If you Google, btw, there are back-ups to this selection, online, btw. Theatertreffen had its own blog, which is sporadically in English, if you can navigate the over-designing. And Nachtkritik offers it’s own rapid responses to each show.

And so, on to:

HS: “Frank Castorf's “adaptation” of Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night:

“An infuriating, endless, loud, cluttered, extreme, messy, repetitive, confusing, deliberately opaque, aggressively non-narrative, brutally unapologetic production. Over four hours long. A huge, multilevel, shambolic set (now typical for Castorf shows), with lots of obscured spaces where the actors would disappear to be filmed and projected onto a huge screen towering over the set (my neck is still a bit sore). A bleak vision of life, a bleak vision theatre.

And yet. Some of the most compelling performances I've seen in a very long time; in Bibiana Beglau, an actor of astonishing, utterly astonishing physical and vocal presence, driven by an awe-inspiring will-power (there were moments in those 4.5 hours where you could see the actors digging deep and coming up with new levels of energy, none more so than Beglau). At one point she was carrying a male colleague around the stage while wearing high heels, repeatedly collapsing, repeatedly picking herself up, cursing and yelling at him as she went. Totally gobsmacking work. Vocally, too, there were passages that went on for so long at such high intensity that I have no idea where the actors found the power to keep going. Often, these happened on camera, infuriatingly; the explosion of immediacy that invariably followed whenever those same actors then left the secluded spots of the set to continue a scene right in front of our eyes was kind of amazing every time, but made the mediation all the more frustrating – though that frustration is obviously entirely deliberate. Castorf's theatre is viciously non-crowd-pleasing, all the more so for the moments in which he has the actors play completely to the crowd. (He feeds and frustrates an audience's desire for presence.)

This is undeniably powerful stuff. I can't say I really liked it as a piece of theatre, in the end: it's just too brutal, too much deconstruction for deconstruction's sake, too dismissive. But it is powerful. Castorf's "voice," his "vision" -- all those awful clichéd terms we use to talk about directors -- are about as strong as any contemporary director's. I wonder how much room there is for the actors in his shows, how much they are slave to the juggernaut of Castorf's theatrical machine; but if they're reduced to cogs, they're very powerful cogs, and he's clearly extraordinarily good at getting his actors to give his shows everything their bodies can give.

So, yeah. I find this practically impossible to analyse or dissect, and I kind of hate its cynicism and sheer bleak negativity. But it's a massively impressive, unquestionably theatrical self-destructive exercise.”

HS: “If only everything could have been as good as the end”:

"Reise ans Ende der Nacht" Schluss from Residenztheater on Vimeo.

To which, Peter Boenisch replies:

PB: “As always Holger Syme and I could not disagree more... How could a production of Celine(!!!) not be “infuriating, endless, loud, cluttered, extreme, messy, repetitive, confusing, deliberately opaque, aggressively non-narrative, brutally unapologetic production, over four hours long”? And is the cynicism really Castorf’s, or Celine’s? I don't at all think it’s a “difficult” Castorf. In a way it’s actually a rather “true-to-the-text” rendition of the novel, I’d say.

I’m having more problems with the odd fascination of the Müller/Castorf generation-of-men with men like Celine, fascism, racism and all that, and purely personally am more with the “Duell” and Moscow Castorfs of late. But certainly staging The Long Journey to the End of Night is an achievement – especially, quite unusual for Castorf, since the second half and end of 4+ hours still maintained focus, and especially since he did this with an ensemble other than his own who’d do that stuff on autopilot. But always good to have a dissensus, no?”

(which, incidentally, is about the most succinct pro and con on the recent theatre of Frank Castorf by two Germans-who-know writing in English that you’re ever likely to read. You’re welcome.)

And onward to the Gotscheff staging of Müller’s translation of Aeschylus’s The Persians:

And Meg’s back!:

“It feels disingenuous to be so vitriolic about Die Perser... I am a shallow and superficial Brit, evidently without any respect for the world-class actors who performed tonight. German theatre is MAGNIFICENT. Magnificent and bonkers. And this has been the greatest holiday ever ever EVER.”

HS: “Last night at the Deutsches Theater Berlin: Gotscheff’s production of Aeschylus’s Persians.

A glorious start – essentially, two clowns fighting a border conflict, by shifting, and ultimately spinning, a massive wall (about 10 by 6 metres).

Then things got VERY austere: this is Heiner Müller’s Aeschylus, and it sounds exactly like what it is. Not easy to digest – not even easy to follow, the language is so disjointed, deliberately unwieldy, compressed, mechanical almost. The actors’ discipline is remarkable, but this is work that's not seeking any kind of emotional connection.

One major highlight, though: Samuel Finzi and Wolfram Koch delivering the messenger’s report from Salamis in unison, perfectly matching each other’s intonations and movements. A really striking take on choral work: they’re speaking with two voices, but as one, with verbal tics, with occasional colloquial inflections, sounding dismissive one moment, ironic another – in other words, although the acting situation is as impersonal as it could be (since neither actor “owns” the speech), the delivery makes it sound like an individual, not a collective, is speaking.

And there is a very strong ending: Finzi as Xerxes, at the edge of the stage, urging us, loudly but with the driest neutrality of tone, to “Lament! Lament! Leave, quietly”.’

And that’s all that they wrote, or saw. Next year, I might actually start a petition to have them write all the English coverage of Theatertreffen. Re: Matt Trueman’s oft referred-to “Criticism as a team-sport” motif, I think this is the best (unwitting) example yet. Set some chalk and cheese (who both write great) onto the same thing, and bask in the glory of what, at times, feel like exactly the sort of 360° coverage theatre lacks.

No comments: