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I had only seen Susanne Wolff act on video before, in Stefan Kimmig’s brilliant production of Maria Stuart (originally staged at the Thalia Theater in Hamburg and now part of the DT’s repertory). Her performance in that filmed-for-TV show was very impressive, virtuosic, powerful. What it did not prepare me for was her stage presence. As Creon in this mashup of Oedipus Rex, Seven Against Thebes, The Phoenician Women, and Antigone, she simply owns the theatre, especially in the concluding third. It’s one of the most commanding performances I have ever seen.

The production as a whole has strengths and weaknesses (I’m quite aware that I’m despatching gushfest after gushfest from my Berlin hotel room, and that I probably ought to rein in my enthusiasm a bit, but really: theatre is so unspeakably exciting here compared to what I’m used to. Plus, I’m not writing as a theatre critic but from my researcher’s perspective of trying to understand — and to remind myself –what these productions are attempting to do, what work they do, and how they go about the business of playing). Any version of these four plays that crams their action into two-and-a-half hours will have to cut corners. One of those corners is the chorus, which is gone entirely. Another is Oedipus Rex, and that’s a bit of a problem. Ulrich Matthes is a wonderful actor, and he has some brilliant moments here, too, but his Oedipus just doesn’t have enough time and space for his tragedy to gather enough steam. And that affects everyone and everything in the first half of the show. For all the emotional vigour and the impressive (and impressively precise) physical work on display, without the pressure cooker of Sophocles’s endlessly building dramatic irony, intensity often felt postulated and presented rather than generated.

Creon, on the other hand, has all the time in the world to develop and change, from loyal, if mistreated, advisor to tortured father to despotic leader. Oedipus is in a way just the prologue to an extended portrayal of Creon’s successful but ultimately (self-)destructive battle to rid Thebes of the plague of Oedipus’s family. The only character who’s given a similar arc is Antigone, and in Katrin Wichmann’s hands she is, for the most part, a worthy opponent for Wolff, though operating in a very different register: where Antigone is always projecting authenticity, Creon, particularly in the final segment, is spinning on a dime, trying on a dizzying range of characters and voices — an amusingly ferocious intonation followed by a chillingly sweet smile; the cardboard crown almost slipping over her face (as if it didn’t really fit) one moment, then pushed into place (a place where it obviously, unquestionably belongs and sits quite comfortably). And she inhabits the entire stage: where other characters run against the back wall, she perches on it; where others come downstage to declaim, she steps right onto the very edge of the stage, almost into the auditorium, and glares at us while she listens. No other character removes herself as much from us as Wolff’s Creon, but no other character gets quite as much in our faces as Creon either.

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Stylistically, the production seems to inhabit two different performative universes, but I have noticed a similar, and similarly interesting trend in Kimmig’s work before. There is a great deal of respect for the language of the text — not to quite the same extent as in Thalheimer’s Medea, but of a comparable nature. And there’s ample room for performances that read, to me at least, as grounded in psychological realism. But the actors never live entirely in this performance style or maintain that respectful relationship to the text: whenever emotions get too large, or conflicts get too intense, they are just as likely to switch, instantly, to a high theatrical register, from guttural growls to roars of anger to high-pitched whines; or even to leave language behind altogether and resort to physical action, dance, drumming, or hurling themselves against walls. Sometimes, these moves can feel contrived — not like a theatrical correlative to strong feelings, but like a half-empty gesture. And sometimes, they work astonishingly well. The most powerful moments of the night, to me, were almost all beyond language: Creon taking the crown off Oedipus’s head, and Oedipus crumpling and relieved in response. Oedipus’s son Eteokles performing a crazed dance and drum routine, strongly backlit. Oedipus himself, finally banished, breaking into a happy dance that echoed his son’s war march. Antigone and Ismene dancing to their own beat (rhythm plays a huge role in this production, and this scene, at the beginning of the final segment, signalled Antigone’s impending rebellion with perfect clarity: Wichmann’s entire body radiated determination).

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Creon appearing at the side of the stage, now as king, running first her wrist, then her elbow along the edge of the central platform in a gesture both casual and totally in control, before jumping up onto the set and moving into a darkly funny and unsettling self-crowning routine (I should mention that the set looks like half a half-pipe open to the auditorium, with trenches on either side behind the proscenium).

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And Haimon defying Creon, both standing in silence, completely still, a foot apart, the atmosphere charged with more rage, held just on the brink of explosion for longer and more tantalizingly than I have seen on a stage in a long time (and when she finally, finally speaks, Wolff doesn’t yell, and it’s terrifying).

So on the whole, this was a visually often arresting show; a show full of interesting choices; a production that richly demonstrated that a sense of play has nothing inherently to do with being funny; but also a production that didn’t quite, for me, channel its various energies into a coherent work. In some ways, I might have preferred to just see Kimmig’s Antigone, though I suspect this Creon may have felt out of place in that — and that wouldn’t have been a price worth paying.

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