No Time

 

The annual Theatertreffen Festival 2012 showed theatre productions that the special critics jury deemed to be the best of those staged in German-speaking countries over the past year. Of the ten projects created to the Festival's themes "time" and "collectives" we selected the longest, the scariest and one that is the most suitable for children.

 

Performance to Destruction

"John Gabriel Borkman. 4th part of the Ibsen saga. Season 2/Performances # 20-25." The Volksbьhne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz Theatre, Berlin. Directed by Vegard Vinge, Ida Mьller and Trond Reinholdtsen. Duration - 12 hours.

It is impossible to get tickets for this project. Even though it lasts an eternity, and being in the audience of the Volksbьhne im Prater Theatre is akin to volunteering oneself as a hostage. The theatre, whose outside already resembles the vampire tavern from the movie "From Dusk Till Dawn", stirs up feelings of unease not only in those who suffer from claustrophobia. Traditional proportions of stage and audience hall are more than just broken here. The small amphitheatre ends up surrounded by action on all sides. The actors perform on the stage itself, which has different levels that do not all open right away but do so progressively, similar to the levels one would move through in a quest-type computer game by searching for keys, solving riddles, and breaking down walls and barriers. They perform in little windows that fly open suddenly on the left and the right of the amphitheatre. They perform behind the audience: there, at the top, at the controls to this gigantic performance machinery stands a terrible man - Vegard Vinge, one of the project's directors and the show's moderator. His face painted white, dressed like the protagonist from the movie "A Clockwork Orange", he yells at the audience, urinates publicly, and shoots the naked actors from his toy gun, dousing them with copious amounts of ketchup.

And even though everyone is allowed to leave this "room of horrors", as well as to drink beverages and eat sandwiches (the performance is 12 hours long) - things do not get any more relaxed or comfortable. Someone is constantly breaking down walls: if not with a hammer then with a fist. The characters themselves resemble wind-up toys with their false bodies and masks, and they break, and become disfigured and mutilated to the point that, by the time the play's finale comes about, they look like actual zombies with brains and entrails falling out. Though, admittedly, the audience needs to actually make it to the finale. Those less hardy crack in the eight hour, when the reaction is dulled and nothing is surprising anymore. Neither the mass executions, nor the choir of the living dead, nor the video of the devil piercing Berlin's skyscrapers with his giant penis. It is, of course, possible to crack even earlier: every new performance is different. The structure of the show depends on a computer programme – they say it's possible to actually sit for five hours or so, doing nothing but staring at the unopened curtain.

The performance, during the course of which the audience ends up on the receiving end of about as much abuse as the pieces of scenery, echoes the simple idea that there are no such things as timeless values, at least not in the post-Freudian and post-Modernist theatre. A chamber play about the end of the world in one particular Norwegian family, where the dad could not handle the power, and the son could not carry out the mission entrusted to him - to rehabilitate his father's good name, becomes the reason for taking a journey through the labyrinths of collective unconscious. Not the most pleasant of adventures, especially considering the fact that in the process numerous stereotypes get broken down along with the walls of the house: for example, about Henrik Ibsen himself, who lived a long time ago and wrote about things that have absolutely no relevance to us.

 

Fatherlessness

A.P. Chekhov "Platonov". The Burgtheater Wien Theatre. Directed by Alvis Hermanis. Duration -5 hours.

Mikhail Vasilievich Platonov is yet another son who lost a father. This Russian Hamlet that crawled out of the backwoods into the living room of Voynitseva, a general's widow, seems like an antithesis to the Norwegian one only in outward appearance. They are alike, much like these two different productions that fixate the destructive processes, even though they don't physically break anything in "Platonov". Neither the manor's thoroughly constructed and very beautiful dйcor. Nor the proverbial "fourth wall", whose presence is further emphasized by the clipped proscenium that narrows the scenery down to the cinema screen format. Time that was extended in "Borkman" by including variations on the theme of "fatherlessness" – from Shakespeare's Hamlet to Ibsen's son of the ruined banker - seems to ended here. That is, time does exist, but it is closed and moves in a circle – no months, weeks or days that pass between the events and the scenes of the drama. Time passes very quickly for the characters and very slowly for the audience that watches the characters in the same scenery do the same thing over and over - gab, flirt and drink.

The guests of the general's widow - the sweet, healthy and cheerful folk - become unrecognizable five hours of real time later. They are wearing the same outfits, talk the same nonsense, but they have become subhuman. True vampires, who were chased away by the morning light, but who will soon be back in this room to torture Platonov, because he is the only one they can feed on. Martin Wuttke is acting out the part of Platonov as though he were spinning around in an endless macabre dance that was slowly killing him. He gets more and more drunk; his knees are buckling; he wants to sleep; he is tired of fending off women, who need his love, and men, who want him to lead something. And everyone dreams of unloading responsibility for their bankruptcy onto his shoulders. It is the same process of destroying the hero that was seen in "Borkman" with the sole difference being that no eyes are being poked out here and no limbs are being broken. Nothing seems to be happening in "Platonov" at all, in the very sense that "people are dining" (setting the table for two hours, eating for an hour, then cleaning up for another two hours, and starting to set the table anew at the end of the performance), while "their lives are being broken". Hermanis managed to show the horror of that implicit and seemingly non-scary destruction. To create a radical visual image of the collapse of an outwardly proper and even likeable mundanity.

 

Behind the Glass

"Before Your Very Eyes". The Gob Squad & CAMPO Theatre, Geneva. The Hebbel am Ufer Theatre, Berlin. Coproduction. Duration 1 hr. 10 min.

In Hermanis' production the actors appear not to notice the audience: they talk, while turned away from them, go to the far side of the stage, whisper to one another. As though real life was recorded by a surveillance camera and then watched in fast forward mode. The creators of the English-German project "Before Your Very Eyes" used a similar device. Seven teenagers are in a room that's separated from the audience by a pane of glass. Two years ago, when the project began, they were asked to talk in front of a camera about how they see themselves in the future. Now those same teenagers, having become older and more mature, are watching these interviews right on stage. And they are more irritated than moved by what they see. They watch their two-years-younger selves as though they were looking at dinosaurs, or younger brothers and sisters, who don't understand anything about life yet.

There are no professional actors in the project. Only children, who observe their own coming-of-age and talk about everything they have experienced – from their first kiss to their first cigarette. Acting in this virtually documentary project becomes a mechanism that makes it possible to compress the processes that are dragged out in real life. The children are offered to feel the changes not only by looking at their yesterday selves, but also by imagining their future. As the camera watches, they glue on moustache, put on wigs, speak in a bass voice, and stuff cotton balls into their bras. Their visions of maturity, of old age, and even of death entertain and move the audience. When children dressed as old people drop dead onto the floor, the audience roars with laughter instead of being horrified. They have no experience and no fear; and that is precisely what allows them to construct their future with no particular drama. They regard life as a fascinating transformation, which, even it does have an end, it is a game over, rather than the end of time altogether. Change incarnate themselves, sheer accelerated metabolism themselves, these children force the audience to have special confidence in their unique experience, too – no professional received such thunderous applause at the Festival.

 

 Olga Gerdt, Berlin

Photo: © William Menke 

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