Can’t keep up! So to stay on schedule, I’ll lump a few shows together and do quick summaries.
None of these were immediately deeply relevant to my “classics” project. I decided to see Armin Petras’ adaptation of Anna Karenina at the Gorki Theater mainly because I’d grown to like that little venue so much in my first week here, because it was the final show in a five-year run (and I figured the atmosphere would be fairly special), and because it was a chance to see a couple of big theatre names on stage, mainly Milan Peschel, who played Vronsky, and Fritzi Haberlandt, who was Anna Karenina. The next night, I went back to the Berliner Ensemble, and wasn’t as bitterly disappointed this time around. They have four of Robert Wilson’s productions in rep right now: Lulu, The Threepenny Opera, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and the most recent one, Peter Pan, which opened a few weeks ago and which I saw yesterday. I thought I couldn’t really spend over two weeks here and ignore Wilson altogether, and I’m glad I didn’t. And finally, I saw Katie Mitchell’s dramatization (if that is the right word) of Friederike Mayroecker’s novella Reise durch die Nacht (Night Train), my second Theatertreffen production, and a show I didn’t think I could miss given Mitchell’s extraordinary status as an artist working in both English and German theatres.
Alright. Brevity. Not a personal strength.
Closing night energy was tangible. The woman next to me, who’d seen the show before, said one particular exchange went on for about twice as long as the first time she’d seen it (and it could have kept going!). Amazing set: basically a very tall, wide, and shallow rectangle blocking the proscenium, made up of differently sized boxes, some the size of small rooms, some that of a large cardboard box, all of them used as playing spaces. Anna enters in a dense cloud of smoke in the biggest box, Vronsky comes crashing through the drywall ceiling, literally smashing the frame of her life in the process. Those drywall partitions took many a beating — Vronsky and Karenin at one point destroy two walls. Anyway, brevity. Jan Bosse’s production of Petras’ adaptation is pretty ingenious: it exploits the absurd potential of the novel’s pathos, but can turn on a dime to tap into its tragedy, too. The same is true of the actors as well. Everything seems at least partly improvised (but who knows if it is?), everything is potentially a joke — but also potentially a disaster. Wanda Perdelwitz’s Kitty at one point spends what felt like an eternity curled up in one of the smaller boxes, crying, while the rest of play goes on around her. Robert Kuchenbuch’s Levin is isolated in a tall, narrow box at the very top of the set for a long time, where he gets back to nature by putting up forest-scene wallpaper — unrolling one long strip after another, applying glue, putting them up — while the other cast members go about their business in other boxes. Ronald Kukulies plays not just Karenin, but also, hilariously and devastatingly, the nine-year old son Seryozha.
What I loved most, though, and not for the first time either, was the sense of utter freedom the actors conveyed: a sense that they were completely in control of the play, but also so in the moment that any and every decision they made was being made right there and and then — and could be made differently. If not having a fourth wall made sense, they didn’t; if they wanted to ignore the audience, they did. They were completely inside the text, inside their figures one moment, and commenting on what they were saying or doing the next. Tonally, all of them sounded entirely contemporary, colloquial, local even — but that didn’t prevent them from switching into a more formal, heightened register in an instant. Fritzi Haberland’s final monologue was a pretty amazing example of this: she jumped off the stage altogether, stood right in front of us, addressed us directly (including castigating someone for looking at her breasts [which weren’t on display]), but although she sounded perfectly chatty, it was clear that she was speaking as Anna. And then, out of this loose, amusing, casual moment, she began narrating her suicide — though it wasn’t obvious at all initially that that was what she was about to do. As it became clear what this story she was telling was, the entire auditorium seemed to lean forward. No-one coughed, no-one fidgeted. And although her intonation didn’t change, although she remained quite casual in voice and attitude, her relationship with the audience had changed completely. And then she died. Or perhaps the lights just went off. It was an extraordinary performance, but of a kind that I’ve now grown to recognize and to expect in Berlin: a performance that makes it difficult to maintain the notion of “being in character.” These actors, in their best moments, are in and out of character simultaneously; the character is them and they present the character; they retain their personal identity and the figure retains its fictional nature, and yet becomes palpable and powerful in a particular way that I’ve rarely if ever seen in an English-speaking theatre.
Robert Wilson does his thing. Its what he does, it’s always technically impressive, and at this point, also a little stale. But I’d never seen one of his productions live, so I thought I might as well. And it was interesting. It got at some of the deep creepiness of J. M. Barrie’s play — Peter’s desire to remain a boy seemed profoundly neurotic, and the alternative, sketched in the song “To die would be an awfully great adventure,” both unsettling and very sad. Hook’s project of turning Peter into a man was rich in pedophiliac overtones, as it should be, featuring a disgusting use of the cup that hold the hook on the pirate’s arm (he spits into it and hands it to Peter to drink; Tinkerbell sucks up the liquid secretly before Peter can swallow; all of this is accompanied by a disgustingly visceral soundscape). And there were some wonderfully rich and evocative images — that of Wendy tied to a swaying and creaking mast in particular. But alongside all of the wondrous creepiness, there were also plenty of scenes too twee for words, sequences that went on for forever as we got to watch actors distort their faces or shake their gravity-defying hairdos. There were some great songs and some not-so-great songs; altogether too many songs, really, given that this hadn’t been billed as a musical (it could easily pass for one). As far as stagecraft goes, the show is very impressive (given that it’s not a Broadway musical). At various points, there were up to four manually operated and multiple remote-controlled follow-spots in action, and the precise timing of the live music and sound effects was equally remarkable — after just a week of previews. The overall effect was about equal parts Edward Gorey and a real-life Little Big Planet, which is not an altogether unappealing mixture if you’re in the right mood.
That Wilson is such a staple of the Berlin theatre scene is a further indication, though, of just how diverse that scene is. His productions are playful in their own way, of course, but they are at the very opposite end of the spectrum from shows like the Gorki Anna Karenina or The Robbers in terms of actorly freedom. I have no idea if Wilson’s performers get to improvise at all, but if they do, Peter Pan showed virtually no trace of it. This is highly artificial, highly crafted, highly finished theatre, and Wilson is interested in pursuing very different aspects of the art form than other theatre makers in this city. It’s that diversity, the unbelievable range from the extreme artifice of Wilson to the near-naturalism of Thomas Ostermeier’s Ibsen, that defines Berlin’s theatre, not a commitment to deconstruction or an amorphously defined Regietheater.
What a set! Basically, a train carriage with a large wooden screen suspended on top of it. The carriage more or less comes apart — individual segments can swivel in and out of place, walls lift up, ceilings fly up. Four camera operators surround the train car, filming through its windows, sometimes entering the carriage, sometimes maneuvering small projection screens into place, sometimes manipulating various special lighting instruments that give the impression of passing obstacles and the like. Most of the actors do their work inside the carriage. We catch glimpses of them, sometimes more than that, sometimes less.
What we do see is the film Mitchell and her team are creating in front of our eyes, projected onto the large, rough screen. Technically, this is an awe-inspiring show. Intellectually, it’s intriguing and for me at least, it worked: the (kind of obvious) point seems to be a deconstruction of the reality effects of both film and stage, and I repeatedly found myself getting lost in the “reality” of the images on the screen before snapping back to the realization that I was watching those images be made just a few feet below. Mitchell plays with mimetic seduction very impressively. And the naturalism of her sets and her actors is really remarkable, especially given the circumstances (all of them are performing their parts in very cramped spaces, with cameras everywhere, including right in their faces, and operators surrounding them physically at all times).
But. BUT. What happens to the theatre in Mitchell’s work? It would have been interesting to have the opportunity to choose between the two versions — either watch the stage or the screen, compare the effect of what the actors are doing without the visual mediation of Mitchell’s cameras and editing to that of the images unfolding on the screen. The nature of the set didn’t really allow for that: the cameras always see more than the audience. Which is to say that ultimately, this piece seemed to me to use live performance to make a point about film; it didn’t really tell or show me a lot about live performance (and yes, I’m aware that I’m making a distinction that’s increasingly difficult and pointless to maintain in an ever more intermedial performance culture). Given the particular mixture of prerecorded sound and background images and live video and acting, the aspects of the work specific to the theatre were largely lost or unexplored: what, for instance, would happen if an actor changed something significant about his or her performance? How flexible is the soundtrack? How quickly could the operators, whose movements seemed to be as tightly choreographed and as perfectly timed as any actor’s, adjust to a new set of circumstances? My sense — and perhaps I’m wrong — was that the risk of breakdown that’s always so tantalizing in the theatre (given that actors can often do such impressive work when faced with an unexpected scenario, especially in the kind of performances I’ve been writing about so enthusiastically) here held little potential for excitement, and a lot of potential for disaster: this is a show that really could collapse in on itself. The amazing thing is that it doesn’t, that the cast and crew pull it off; but that’s an achievement I associate less with the theatre than with TV — think of “events” such as the famed live season premiere of “ER” in 1997.
Mitchell, interestingly, falls outside the various types of spectrum I’ve used to understand the Berlin theatre scene. In terms of artifice, she’s far beyond Ostermeier in her commitment to realism; on the other hand, Night Train also draws attention to its own made-ness in a very obvious way (as I said, that foregrounding of artifice is sort of its point). That tension between truth and fiction is at least one way of understanding the theatrical logic of many of the shows I’ve seen, so in that regard, Mitchell may be a true Berliner after all. In terms of acting style, though, she’s again working in a register I haven’t seen on any other stages here. Then again — again — for all the screen naturalism we see through the camera, the show also keeps us conscious of the constructedness of that naturalism. Though in that regard, the difficulty of seeing the actors directly becomes an issue, because their physical performances may, after all, convey a similar degree of naturalism if only we could see them. The question of whether the camera makes an emotional reality or whether the actors create that reality first is one the production may raise, but it does not allow us to even put it to test, let alone to answer it. And that feels like a bit of a let down to me.
And there we go: three plays in one post. Phew.
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