Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Democracy in America – Schaubühne, Berlin

[seen 08/04/17]

Photo: Guido Mencari

Democracy in America is Romeo Castellucci’s adaptation of the two-volume 1835 (& 1840) classic French text by Alexis de Tocqueville.

It is the kind of adaptation that would have Michael Billington and/or David Hare reaching for their brownings.

I’ll describe it for you [obviously spoilers]:

The first thing we see is a stark written description of the concept of “speaking in tongues”. It is projected, in English, onto the large widescreen plastic sheeting that fills the entire proscenium before the darkened stage.

Lights come dimly up and an 18-strong troupe of [performers dressed as] majorettes (is that still a word? That’s the thing they’re dressed as, anyway) half-march/half-dance in swirling, abstract shapes, before unfurling their single letter flags to spell out D-E-M-O-C-R-A-C-Y--I-N--A-M-E-R-I-C-A. They then disassemble these words, and continue their “dance,” only to reveal an anagram. They do this several times. The anagrams seem variously pointed, amusing, pregnant. (“caiman marry ecocide” “aerodynamic ceramic” “yardarm cocaine mice” “academic cream irony”). One of the performers drops to the back and begins to remove her costume and then covers herself in stage blood. The remaining performers stand to the side and form only single words – the names of countries which can be made using the letters. There is a moment where they try to make “Yeman” but the performer with the “M” is standing naked behind them covered in blood. Again, it is pointed, but not *the point*.

There’s then a brief sequence when we are played a sound clip of black men breaking stones in the 1960s(?) singing an older song, which dates back to the period of actual slavery (rather than the de facto slavery practiced by the American penal system). On stage, a large model of some neoclassical carved stone facade slides on and slides off again.

This is followed by perhaps the most surprising (for Castellucci) element of the entire evening; a whole long scene of what we might call “drama”. A wife (Elizabeth) and a husband (Nathaniel) discuss the state of their crop of potatoes. It feels like something out of The Crucible, but it’s not. It might be adapted from A Classic Of American Literature, or it might not (and the freesheet programme didn’t help). But it’s fascinating to see. It feels like real A-Level Text *Big Themes* Drama. And it is played (in Italian) with a kind of agonising slowness and deliberation. It perhaps needs explaining to English readers that the sort of theatre we take for granted in our commercial theatres (and many regional playhouses) is seen as hilariously old-fashioned, even at the Schaubühne; so there’s a real disconnect for this English reviewer, trying to work out if this scene is pure kitsch, or also intended as “heartfelt”. I imagine there’s room for it to be both. What seems most crucial is what it adds by way of textures to the whole. (I’m assuming, having not read it, that de Tocqueville’s book itself doesn’t include dramatic vignettes. Yes, lest we forget: all this is still an adaptation of de Tocqueville!) I mean, maybe my English A-Level Big Themes reading is a bit simplistic, but it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to think that this depiction of puritans farming the “New World” – their almost-medieval fear of witchcraft, their superstitions, their belief in God – is meant to add to our understanding of what “Democracy in America” might mean. It certainly resonates.


When the lights come back up on the stage after the interval, Elizabeth is alone (I think?). She seems possessed. There has been talk of her having sold a child. Of her having been watched by an old woman (a native American?) in the woods. Of having sold the child in the woods? Now she tears off her clothes – it’s worth saying at this point that all this is happening behind one gauzey screen. I don’t know if there’s full nudity or not. It looked like it from the back, it doesn’t look like it from the photos. It’s not such a huge deal either way, right? (We’re not in England, so everyone’s fine with it anyway.) The gauze screen (present throughout) adds a visual unity to the stage picture; it sort of flattens everything together; instead of depth-of-field, the field is flat, and things further away from it are simply fainter. I’m pretty sure this sort of thing is virtually illegal in the Big English Book of How To Do Theatre. This production makes a fine case for burning that book...

Behind her – upstage, behind a further gauze – four(?), nude(?), shadowy figures dance a dance of obscure meaning/purpose/intent.

Then – in Elizabeth’s portion of the stage – she is surrounded by twelve(?) red-robed dancers – curious crosses between Time Lords and The Spanish Inquisition(?).

During this sequence, there is – perhaps – the head of a giant ostrich-like bird bobbing up and down stage-right. (I’m pretty sure I didn’t just imagine that.)

Next, Elizabeth (and the child?) are lying prone on the ground, and the action consists of watching two huge non-naturalistic puppet shapes (basically two articulated versions of the thing on the cover of Tubular Bells, oddly enough) which twist and writhe, suspended magically in space.

Then(!) there’s a scene of two Native Americans who stand in front of the reverse of the earlier-seen neo-classical façade and discuss having to learn English. And note that the new arrivals in their country aren’t learning an awful lot of Native American. The two performers (all the performers are women, btw) playing these two men (we know they’re men, because we can see their dangly, prosthetic penises occasionally) retreat to the hollow, fibre-glass rear of the neo-classical monument and remove their prosthetic skin, and hang both skin-suits over a conveniently (re)appearing beam than descends from the flies.

And that’s that.

That’s Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville adapted for stage by Romeo Castellucci.

In a way, it feels almost redundant to offer “an analysis,” partly because it’s already present in what I’ve managed to remember and relate above, partly because I think other people will do it far more elegantly than me, and partly because the piece resists single-position interpretations. A full “analysis” or exegesis would take longer to read than the piece takes to watch. And would necessarily be less than watching the piece itself.

That said, it would be mulish not to offer at least a characterisation of the things I took from watching. The most striking things in the evocation of nascent “America” are a) as a contested piece of land, and b) in the insane levels of superstition present in the puritan “founding fathers”. (Another thing that happens in the piece – I know not when in the above sequence, but quite late on – is a section where various dates in American history are projected. The contrast between these now-iconic laws and events taking place, and the worldview of the superstitious Europeans making them neatly undoes the accepted view that America is somehow a product of “the Enlightenment” or even anything we’d really accept as modern civilisation. It makes so much more sense of America, almost immediately...)

It really shakes up the accepted narrative of “American history”, perhaps even the contentious myth of “progress” in de Tocqueville’s story. It reminds us that the “civilised” Europeans who are in the progress of genocidally depopulating “America” when de Tocqueville was writing, weren’t even all that “enlightened” themselves, quite apart from the slavery and the murder and the genocide.

However, I think to just view the thing through this utilitarian-political analysis would be a mistake. I wonder if it’s even “saying” those things at all, or whether those aspects are just inescapably present to anyone who’s not a C19th Frenchman. It feels like the strangeness is also key, and I just plain don’t know how to go about “interpreting” that. But, again, it feels like “direct” interpretation would be the wrong approach. I think this is the thing I took most from the performance, that the kind of “pinned-down” “this = this” interpretation – the frame through which most English work seeks to be understood – simply doesn’t work. Things are deliberately illusive. You can’t ask a simple “what did X mean?” question and expect a straight answer. It’s a kind of play of textures, and an offer. It’s not a map, it’s abstract art.

Even saying “I loved it” or “This is great art” seems pretty facile. I did and I think it is, but that’s beside the point. What I took most strongly from the piece was how much I wished that we had anything like this being made in the UK, and with the educational, cultural, economic and critical apparatus around it to allow it to survive. Not only did watching it provide far and away the best critique of where America is now that I’ve seen since the election (Saturday Night Live? Fuck off), it also functioned as a damning critique of where most of British theatre is now, and how much more it will suffer after Brexit.

[No trailer for Democracy in America that I could find, but if you’ve never seen any Castellucci before, this maybe gives you a slight idea...]

[Self indulgent intro (cut from top of piece. Clearly teaching a course on criticism is finally having a (slight) positive effect on me)

I feel like I'm finally getting somewhere with the work of Romeo Castellucci.

I started out struggling with his work, eight years before I saw any, with my then partner praising Giulio Cesare to the rafters after she saw it at LIFT.

I *think* I started with off with his actual work seeing two of Societas Raffaello Sanzio’s Tragedia Endogonidia cycle shown as films in Munich’s Nazi-built Haus der Kunst at the SpielArt Festival in 2007.

On reflection, starting by seeing Strasbourg was unfortunate. Because it made completely sense to me. This memorable ballet-for-tank (as I remember it) captured something so precise about the place it describes, that I felt I *got* Castellucci straight away. Seeing London (above) straight after was at least a more helpful taste of what was to come.

I saw only Purgatorio (of his full Divine Comedy cycle) at SPILL in 2009, was bemused, and didn’t write about it. I saw his Hey, Girl at BaltoScandal in 2010, was bemused again, and again didn’t write about it.

Then in 2014, I saw his Hyperion: briefe eines terroristen at the Schaubühne. My review there perhaps glosses rather too successfully over just how unfit I was to have an actual view on the piece. I would say that I almost entirely and comprehensively failed to understand (or even remember) very much at all, and I covered it by conjuring up some associations with fascism too much.

Then we get to Doktor Faustus in Poznań, I think this show represents a real point of reconciliation between myself and Castellucci’s work. I don’t think I even pretend to have understood it, but here I felt like I grasped something more fundamental about what “understanding” might mean in the context of his work. I’m inclined to blame England, Eng. Lit. degrees, and the degree of literalism we were force-fed in theatre, and resultantly came to expect from anything calling itself “an adaptation of”. Here, a cello suite played in a soundproof glass box (with the sound on a five second delay) was “an adaptation of” Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus. How absurd. How abstract. How beautiful.

And so we come to...

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