Monday 8 May 2017

The Borderline Prozession: a loop on what divides us – Rathenau-Hallen, Berlin

[seen 08/05/17]

This is more like it.

After what feels like something of a false start yesterday, Schauspiel Dortmund’s The Borderline Procession feels like exactly the sort of three-hour-long, non-linear, multi-media *thing* that I go to Theatertreffen to see.

To be strictly fair, there’s actually nothing especially/intrinsically “German” about The Borderline Procession.

What is is is – essentially – a two-sided, single-camera version of one of those Katie Mitchell Camera Shows. Basically, imagine The Forbidden Zone. In traverse. With sets of rooms facing both sides of the audience (who therefore can’t see each other), and a camera travelling continuously, remorselessly round, with what’s happening in front of it constantly projected on large screens on both sides. Oh, and for Theatertreffen, this is all being staged in a vast converted warehouse on thr outskirts of the city that they’ve done out specially. It has a huge cast – maybe thirty? Fifty? Something in the order of The Suppliant Women (no idea if some of these are also volunteers). And what they’re doing is, well, maybe I should just describe the [“series of tableaux” is an unimspiring description, but not inaccurate]...

Ok. So. On the side of the stage nearest the door, the rooms are all kinds of domestic interiors. From memory, in order, there’s a hot tub, a sort of gym, a kitchen with dining table, a living room, a bedroom (almost hotel levels of minimalism, but with a crucifix above the bed), and a bathroom. Round the side there’s something like a study (maybe shades of private detective land). Then, on the other side, there’s exteriors – perhaps running continuously along one strip of road, often unrelated to the stuff on the other side of the wall there’s a bus stop outside a kind of Amsterdam strip-show type window (all spangly red curtain and metal shutter); then there’s a kind of stockade, almost, with a high metal fence; then there’s a parked SUV, then there’s a kind of burger/kebab bar. This side feels more spacious for not having walls ever three or four metres.

The immediate effect is (obviously) massively impressive. That doesn’t wear off quickly. Eventually you do get to grips with the fact that it’s actually quite a simple set. But it takes a long time of being impressed to get there. And the fact of the camera adds a whole extra dimension. (I initially assumed, sitting on one side, that the audience would never get to see the other side, as per Mitchell’s “hidden rooms”), but in fact there are two twelve minute intervals, so we were encouraged to swap sides.

At the start, the whole cast are processing (as per the title), round the set behind the camera, on the route that the camera will continue to take throughout the show. They sing a nice not-quite-choral arrangement of In A Manner of Speaking (orig. Tuxedo Moon, but this version probably owes more to Nouvelle Vague’s cover – see bottom).

We Englanders have been handed thick(ish) sheaves of stapled A4 in lieu of surtitles. There’s enough light to read along if you want to, but a quick skim confirms that gist-getting will be fine. The text is a patchwork of postmodern quotation, kicking off with the passage from Genesis where God creates the world, and ending up with extraordinary texts by Berlin artbro Jonathan Meese “about” Lolita, Scarlett Johannson, Megan Fox and Claudia Schiffer. In between there are texgts by everyone from Nietzsche to AfD, Goethe to Ginsberg, Shakespeare to Brecht, as well as newly written or improvised list-texts. Last night, there was also the news, broadcast as text on the TV Screens, that Emmanuel Macron had beaten Marine Le Pen in the French Presidential Election. The news was hugely welcome, and greeted with such an audible sigh of relief in the auditorium; although, dramaturgically, it would have been better for part two of Borderline Procession if Le Pen had won.

So. The first part of the piece is quite a pleasant, relaxing affair. The interiors show scenes of generally content, perhaps a little banal, perhaps a little Lynchilly off-kilter everyday life. A mother puts a child in his raincoat and sends him out to the bus stop; a woman prepares to take a shower, takes a shower, her lover comes home and takes a shower, they have a bath together; a man and a woman (husband and wife?) have a tense dinner together... On the other side of the wall/outside, a woman shuts up shop in the burger van and puts her coat on. In the first part, it feels as if these actions are generally repeated. John Cage’s famous quotation “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all” is repeated (though not quite 32 times). Some of Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach is played. Once in a Lifetime is played. Revolution 9 by the Beatles is played. Some of these things are played over each other, while one or other of the performers continues to read through the texts that constitute the “script”. The cycles/sequences happening within the rooms gradually move forward. And the camera remorselessly keeps circling the lot, so that the scenes continue to unfold, one after the other, on the main screen.

On one hand it’s a heady effect. The accretion of image, music and text, smashing into each other like so many signifiers in a semiotic superhighway pile-up. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure there used to be an Ariston advert that did something really similar. Of course, adverts aren’t filmed live in front of you, so there is the fact that you can disdain to keep watching the big screens, and instead keep on looking at the few rooms directly in front of you. It’s incredibly strange to think that I remember the first time I saw this new stage grammar introduced (in Katie Mitchell’s Waves, for me, about ten and a half years ago). It now feels as normal as naturalistic sets of lower class houses must have done in 1966. Now that it’s such a clearly established *thing* in its own right, I guess the question now is whether the idea is being moved forward. Here, I’d say it’s a resounding yes. In a way, this feels like the theatrical equivalent of the single-tracking-shot used in the cult Berlin film Victoria.
[In fact, it’s moderately less impressive, since there are two intervals, use of live image overlay, and it’s not exactly like they’ve got a pace to keep up. On the other hand, there are things it does that film can’t, so...]

Given how settled this first half felt, how seductively routine, I was quite prepared for it to carry on in much the same vein for the next two hours(ish). In fact, the thing has intervals for a reason. This is definitely a three-act piece. And if act one is perhaps The Present, then act two is a projected Near Future, or perhaps just the violent bits of the present that we were studiously ignored. Part two is a kind of dystopian nightmare, complete with Nazi zombies, gimp masks and a protracted rape scene which I could really, really, really have done with not having been there.

[This review is already *way too long*, so I don’t propose to discuss the rights and wrongs of simulating rape on stage here. Suffice it to say, it was grimly fascinating to note the extent to which (in the rules of the production) the act seemed to have to be carried on while the camera wasn’t looking at the scene. And the extent to which it looked needlessly violent. And I was interested by the different relationship between on and off, in terms of the performances and the camera in parts one and two. I will add, that the female performer playing the woman being raped did at least get to keep her one-piece trousersuit/70s jumpsuit thing on, apart from gratuitous toplessness.

Did it add to the artistic whole? Yes. How could it not? Was that enough reason to include it? Is it ever? Possibly. Was it here? Impossible to say. It certainly made most impression on me of anything I’d seen up until that point, to the point of erasing much else. Because it was completely horrible. And it pretty much stopped me in my tracks and changed my mood completely. Amyway, ultimately, I’m never going to be able to say enough against it to satisfy people who think that simulations of rape should be banned on stage, and I’ve already grumbled far too much already for the people who don’t think this sort of political correctness has any place in art criticism.]

Apart from that, there was also a lot of talk about the current world crises: terrorism, refugees, all the wars. There’s even a bit where they tried to quantify all the wars currently being fought. That bit went on for a very long time. And there’s a bit about White Western (Male?) Guilt as well. Alongside the rape scene. :-/

It was at this point, I became most acutely grateful that Macron had won the election. There was talk of Trump and Brexit. The Nazi zombies never really looked all that funny. Or all that improbable.

Then there was another interval. I smoked and tried to walk off the worst of the second half.

The third part has least text. It opens (I think) with almost the whole cast dressed as “little girls” – very much in The Shining/Jake and Dinos Chapman mould, but when coupled with the text about Lolitas, no matter how absurdist and political... Well, after Andrey’s Three Sisters the night before, you do kinda wish the three men named on the front of this piece’s programme (Kay Voges, Dirk Baumann and Alexander Kerlin) had between them had a bit of a sit down and a think about the collective effect of their, ahem, male gazes. I’m sure if asked they’d play the postmodern-defence card – it’s *knowingly* *about* the make gaze. Hence the naked woman taking a shower lingered over for approximately the length of time her male counterpart is. Etc.

Moreover, when the third part of a show that was previously about All The Crises seems to bring it all down to fear of being overrun by a burlesque of sexualised “little girls” (many of them admittedly played by men with heavy stubble, but...). Well, you get the picture. It feels like a critique has been thrown, and largely because there’s no stronger driving idea. The more I think about it, the more I *really have no idea what they were driving at*.

Now, on one level, rounding on the piece’s failures of feminism stands as a very convenient get-out clause for my having failed to come up with a more compelling reading of what’s in front of me. At the same time, we haven’t actually given up on feminism, have we? I mean, no, Germany isn’t dealing in the same sort of feminism as the US/UK are at the moment, but this did seem pretty awkward whatever the current ideology.

So, yeah. Visually it was pretty neat. Intellectually it was interesting. Ethically it was wonky as fuck.

And I’m now too tired to think about it any more...

Have a look at the trailer and draw your own conclusions. It’s not wildly unrepresentative of the whole:

And, in a musical nutshell...

*I will add: I was disturbed that I don’t think the scene would have been half as noticeable to the audience on the other side of the auditorium and only watching the “outdoor set” on screen, which is an interesting comparison between how “live” and “screen” differ.

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