A Senseless Hope

Paris still remains one of the principal centers of world theatre. Yet more and more often it is visitors from other countries that are at the heart of the most notable theatre-related events.

 

Over the last few seasons, the Odeon, this citadel of theatre avant-garde, has become famous for the works of its guest stars. It was here that Poland's Krzysztof Warlikowski staged his adaptation of Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire" with Isabelle Huppert as Blanche. This season the theatre invited a no less controversial Berliner, head of the Volkbьhne Theatre , Frank Castorf -- an East German director with leftist views and an interest in social problems.
Castorf's main goal is to deromanticize the love of a young bourgeois and a courtesan. The language of Dumas has been debased and exposed using stage entourage. It is not love but sexual exploitation born out of idleness and sloth; not a bourgeois but a degraded "middle-class" European, too lazy to even pull up his own dropped trousers, let alone love somebody else. The cooked food falls out of the plate and onto the ground, and Armand (Vladislav Galard) picks it up and cooks it once again. And the person sitting in the theatre box is no beautiful courtesan with camellias -- just a mediocre, haggard-looking whore.
As a contemporary artist Frank Castorf is, naturally, disgusted by the affectedness and the lofty rhetoric of the relationship between Armand and Marguerite, where Marguerite is seemingly oblivious to her debased status, and Armand, apparently, doesn't realize that he and his kind are, in fact, the reason for a woman's downfall and ruin. Castorf knocks down the gold-plating and the bas-reliefs, leaving behind only dirty walls. The director talks about the fact that modern-day individualism and egoism that has reached its peak (of communication problems) is rooted in the spirit of romanticism, which was the first to pull man out of nature and raise him above reality, forcing him to ignore it. In other words, in going back to the original -- the romantic love story -- Castorf uses it to show the collapse of individualism: the society's complete malfunction.
Before us are the back alleys of the red light district -- the twisted insides of the Place Pigalle. Dilapidated concrete with reinforcing bars jutting out, "bald" tires instead of seats, cardboard boxes, an armchair with a missing armrest, a shower in a plastic barrel, a greasy gas burner, dirt and filth. At the same time, the other half of the stage has neon lights, red streetlights, an air of sexuality, delicate curtain lace, doll-faced girls in the windows -- sheer beauty. Paradise and its seamy side. Deception's alluring lights and the unsightly, dull reality, where everyone perishes together -- the exploiters and the exploited.
A rotating advertising drum towers over the slums and the pigeon house. On it is a strikingly profound inscription: Anus Mundi Global Network, or the "Asshole of the World" Global Network. The European society, as we know, has long ago lost that sense of contentment and comfort that usually overtakes Russian tourists. This society is not only aware of its place in this life and has a tongue-in-cheek attitude toward itself, but, as we can see, is also prepared to advertise itself in this capacity. Herein lies the global irony of Frank Castorf, who is famously anti-capitalism. The drum gets stuck, and more and more often we are seeing only half of the rotating inscription -- Anus Global.
Advertising billboards show us two very characteristic pictures. A photograph of Berlusconi and Gaddafi, smiling and kissing (this was back in the days of their untroubled youth) is an advertisement for potency-enhancing drugs with an Italian slogan: "Potency Forever". The second billboard is nothing short of venomous toward modern-day France: a smiling Hitler shakes hands with General Henri-Philippe Pйtain, who is enjoying the peace and quiet at a resort in Vichy, while the whole world is engulfed in flames. Two men surrounded by the EU's ring of stars and an inscription "Europe without borders" -- an unequivocal allusion to the notion that the European Union has realized Hitler's dream about a virtual absence of borders in Europe. History's paradox.
The irony here is similar to the meaning of Dmitri Vrubel's fresco on a piece of the Berlin Wall: "Lord, help us survive amid this mortal love." Castorf shows us a demolished, dehumanized, destructive world nestled in the shadows of the illusory and insincere politicians' love. Those politicians think that they are somehow exerting influence on our life. Yet in reality, in the back alleys it remains just as unsightly and dull, suicidal.
There are several Marguerites here, which points to her stereotypical nature more so than to Gautier's many faces. A man's a man, and their name is Legion. Still the "chief" Marguerite has one important quality -- she is Russian. She is played by Claire Sermonne Galievskaya (she's French; a descendant of "those" emigrants; a few years ago she graduated from the Moscow Art Studio, from the course taught by Brusnikin, Kozak and Pokrovskaya). During the most dramatic moments Marguerite easily switches into Russian. "Господи, у меня жар, господи, я умираю... мне так больно, я страдаю" ("Dear Lord, I have a fever. Dear Lord, I'm dying... I am in so much pain, I'm suffering.") The French are only too happy to feel the music of the Russian language, which works here (and Castorf emphasizes that point) to take the audience back to the world of the damp St. Petersburg, of the "underground" Dostoevsky. In building this intercultural bridge Frank Castorf reminds us a about the situation with the Eastern Europe, which became the largest supplier of sexual services to the "civilized Europe" after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Castorf, through the work of Dumas fils, cracks open a contemporary issue that is more familiar to us from the novels of Houellebecq and Coetzee -- the problem of sexual exploitation of the "Second and Third world" and the continuation via that phenomenon of the colonial and imperial policies of the West.
The Russian Marguerite Gautier is strikingly knowledgeable -- clearly she's been educated. She sits Armand, the beast, down onto a small stool and shows him "a brilliant film" (one of Sergei Eisenstein's Mexican pictures), explaining to him the symbolism of the cultural phenomenon -- the wild mixture of conquistador-imposed Christianity and local paganism. Death catches up with Marguerite "on-screen" -- it is the funeral mask that appears in the scenes of a lively pagan funeral ritual, filmed by Eisenstein.
In the finale Castorf shows us documentary scenes from the Romanian revolution and the overthrow of Ceauşescu, where one of the insurgents is holding a stuffed rag heart in his hands. "I have money. Let's go to Moscow, to Moscow. It's scary here," concludes Marguerite Gautier.

Renй Gonzalez, the current artistic director of the famous theatre, known for its international projects (Vladimir Pankov's "SounDrama" is next on the agenda), is an expert at coming up with interesting events. The play by today's most famous Swedish playwright Norйn was staged by the mutual efforts of a Polish team and students of French-speaking acting schools.
The semi-documentary text, supplemented with the actors' personal stories, tells a story of outsiders living in an underground passage on one of Stockholm's main streets. The stage, as is usually the case with Lupa, is "naturally" littered, cluttered with everyday things: puddles in the sunken asphalt, dim light of semi-broken lamps, ripped posters, graffiti: "Too rare to live, too strange to die" and "Revolt".
At almost four hours long, "The Waiting Room", performed as a Parisian premiere at the "La Colette" Theatre, showcases Krystian Lupa's signature style of recent years. His idea of an extended-length theatre breaks the norms and laws of a traditional theatre performance that moves from event to event, and every moment is saturated with information. Time inside it appears almost archived, accelerated in comparison with the flow of time in normal life. Krystian Lupa makes uneventfulness both the doctrine and the primary emotion. He breaks theatre laws, but fills, floods the stage with a rhythm of life that coincides with the uneventfulness of regular life. And after a few minutes of discomfort the audience falls in sync with this rhythm. Lupa's productions are comfortable in a way -- theatre becomes a substitution for life, its extension rather than a syncope, an explosion, a condensation. Uneventfulness, fluidity, even boredom in a way, the boredom of waiting -- the primary emotion of "The Waiting Room".
We see a lost generation. Thoroughly, meticulously they push the drug into the vein, as though they were performing an important ritual. One of the acts the actors perform completely naked, and the movie camera exaggerates their nudity, sliding over the bodies. By some miracle Lupa ensures that these scenes are stripped of any and all eroticism -- naked people, deprived of spiritual warmth, crawl about like worms in search of love. They discuss Marxism and Trotskyism, Fassbinder and Dostoevsky, Christ. They pretend they are a messiah; they drink shamelessly and merrily. We see a dozen of people at various stages of demoralization -- there are sprightly and autistic individuals, local philosophers and scoundrels, pretty girls and freaks.
There is only one thing that can unite them: the complete absence of a value system that could and should make them want to "rehumanize". Using an upside-down mirror Krystian Lupa shows us our own devalued life, which is pointless to hold on to. The characters living in the underground passage do not have a single motivation to get out of that place; there is no truth or light up above, and they feel so good together. The "normal logic" dictates that the fallen people should be reborn. And if Gorky had something to offer the people of "The Lower Depths" as an incentive, an artist of the late 20th century no longer has any such incentive to offer.
A needle replaces the Messiah, the transcendental. The scene before last shows us a young woman who searches for a clean vein and ends up giving herself an injection in the eye. The euphoric rush makes her nauseous, her eyes bleed. And this absurd creature, staggering about in a state of anabiosis, profoundly dependant and miserable, looks like Oedipus whose eyesight has returned and who suddenly saw his life in the proper light -- in hallucinogenic swirls.
In the play's finale the actors seem to become themselves. They sit down next to each other and without waiting for applause stare into the audience for a very-very long time. As if they are expecting to see something; as if that "something" were there. Lhasa de Sela's "A Fish on Land" -- a shrill, lullaby-like song -- is heard from the stage. This incredible Canadian singer, who died in her prime, sang a story about how a fish couldn't breathe without the sea. And how there came a man who threw the fish into the sea. And how the fish became human.
Lupa concludes the production with an inflection of senseless hope, whose worth lies in the fact that it is senseless and non-didactic. By portraying yet another lost generation the Polish genius hinges his hopes solely on an internal resource of self-regeneration. Lhasa's meditative song becomes a powerful ode to human hope, a moan of a zombified generation that sees no meaning in existence and stares at you, demanding compassion and understanding. A prayer for the emergence of a new meaning of life, a new boost for the value system, a self-regeneration of the fallen man.

 

Pavel Rudnev, Paris – Moscow

 

 

 

 

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