Thursday 25 June 2015

Doktor Faustus – Stara Rzeźnia, Poznań

[seen 24/06/15]


This is an adaptation of Thomas Mann’s novel Doktor Faustus by Italian theatre director Romeo Castellucci.

I’m afraid my acquaintance with the novel is limited to that Wikipedia page to which I’ve linked above. It seems like a fine summary of a great book. I hope one day to read it.

Castellucci’s *adaptation* of the novel takes the following form:

The small audience enters of one the halls of the venue, Stara Rzeźnia (old slaughterhouse). It is long, high, and only slightly gloomy in the 5pm light.

In the centre of the room is a black wooden frame with glass panels. Inside this glass box sits a man in a black suit, black shirt, black shoes, with a cello.

The man starts to play the cello. We hear the cello amplified through the several speakers standing on posts, slightly above head height, around the room. After a small amount of time I imagine everyone notices that the music coming out of the speakers is delayed. We are not hearing the music as the man plays it, but with a, what? Five second delay? More?

The music is Zoltán Kodály’s Sonato for Solo Cello (below).

There are two cellists credited on the Malta Festival website, I have no idea if this is because the music we’re being played is being played by an unseen cellist, or because there is more than one performance per day and they rotate, with the delay itself being mechanical. These are the things you do wonder about.  [I checked; it’s the latter.]

As the piece draws on, the inside of the glass box begins to steam up with condensation.

The spectators around the box stand still, or glide around the room, shuffle from one foot to the other, or take photos with their iPhones. It is impossible to say whether every other spectator is also meant to be part of the piece we are watching or not. Castellucci himself stands, or crouches, or stands again, against one wall. Unreadable.

As a piece of work untethered to any meaning, it is remarkable in itself. It is, if nothing else, a beautiful performance of a fine, haunting, jarring piece of music.

But somehow it is much more than that. And, yes, it *does* feel like – if not an *adapatation* of the novel, then certainly a valid response to it. Again, as with Schwalbe, I found myself in my head much more than is ever possible with the directed thinking of British *argument theatre* (which, let me be clear, I also often admire very much).

And, as I found myself thinking often last week, context is enormously important.

So, yes, because of my morbid mindset, this ex-charnel house, being in Poland, reminded me of the absolute worst parts of C20th history – Jedwabne, Katyn, and worse places still...

I couldn’t say if it was something in the design of the box, a sense of the intent, an unconscious memory of when the novel itself was written... If there is the implication of horror in the cello music itself, dating from 1915, appreciation of the fact is absent from Wikipedia.

There is a fine interview with Castellucci in the Festival magazine, which I haven’t yet read, but from which I have seen the pull quote about art and evil: “Art has nothing to do with good. That’s what Baudelaire, Nietzsche, and even before them, Greek tragedy spoke about. Art does not do good deeds, but it is more like a disease, a virus, which comes to bother, rather than to comfort or confirm, so that we can feel safe.”

Now there’s something we really don’t hear very often. Yes, we hear that cliché about “wanting to make people see the world differently” until we’re ready to strangle the next person who says it. But we never hear “this is actively meant to upset” or “disturb”. We hear a lot about art’s powers for good, often social good, but much less about its capacity to wallow in the foulness of the human condition for the sake of it, much less to celebrate it. Imagine *that* Arts Council Application Form, for Christ’s sake. Or maybe not Christ.

I’ve written before about my tendency to compare theatre to “alternative music” (may it rest in taxonomy heaven), and even (obliquely) about Theatre and Evil. But I think there is definitely something to be said for an art which isn’t all about healing the world like so many hippies. I mean, it’s *Art*. I quite like the idea of art that actually scares people now and again, rather than just being an inconveniently socially-just thorn in the side of the Tories.

What do we think?

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