The curtain opens, and I think I’m in the Lyttelton. No way this is a German set. The proscenium is completely closed off — a picture frame around a photo-realistic replica of the entrance hall and swooping grand staircase of a decaying 19th-century mansion, trees starting to shoot up through the cracked floor tiles, windows covered in grime, plaster peeling dramatically. It’ll look a little less like the real thing later, when the fluorescents come on for the curtain call — but under a soft light, it’s as naturalistic as any set I’ve seen. It’s as English as stage design gets. Admirable in its own way, to be sure, but in its disavowal of its own fakeness a very odd thing to see in a German theatre.

The show that will unfold in this material ode to naturalism, Martin Crimps’s take on Euripides’ Phoenician Women, isn’t anywhere near as quintessentially English — but nor is it much like most German shows I’ve seen over the past year. The concept is intriguing, once it becomes clear what’s happening: Crimp has turned Euripides’ chorus of women trapped in Thebes into a chorus of girls that seem to feed the various characters familiar from the Oedipodeia their lines. Mitchell takes what the text suggests a step or two further, making all the individual figures the chorus’ captives, blindfolded and physically controlled by the girls. It’s clear that time is being manipulated here; that the events the characters describe and live through are not happening to them for the first time, but that they are compelled, by obsession or force, to repeat, re-describe, re-represent them again — and again. In an interview with Andrew Haydon, Mitchell spoke of re-enactment as the central trope in the production, filling in a backstory that I would not have been able to reconstruct quite as clearly from what I saw:

in our version of things in their heads these characters from the bronze-age died and what happened to them is that they went into darkness and then five seconds later they were pulled out of that, back to life, had blindfolds pulled on them, were transported in lorries to an entirely modern location and asked to re-enact… And told that something awful would happen to a loved one if they didn’t. And that’s what they’re playing.

That I could not have guessed. And I must admit that I find it, in its quasi-realism, rather less interesting than what ended up on stage. However, what is there in Mitchell’s description and just as clear in the production itself is that the chorus is utterly, even viciously in charge. In that, she departs quite drastically from Crimp’s script, where the relationship between the characters and the girls is much more ambiguous, with moments of tenderness and exchanges that sound like dialogue between equals. In Mitchell’s production, the girls — who come in two guises, dressed all in black in their entirely impersonal version, dressed in pastel-coloured coats when representing the Phoenician girls — control the narrative, both physically (when they push their blindfolded victim around the set, drag them in and out of rooms, lock them in or slam doors in their faces) and, as often, verbally (cueing them, insisting that the characters repeat the lines they are being fed, refusing to let their captives go off script). And they control the symbolic language of the show: in all the choral scenes, they come forward bearing glass cases with various objects, heavily symbolic if not always easily identified — there’s the ash-handled knife with which Oedipus killed Laius in Crimp’s version of the story; there’s the rock that Capaneus’ machine hurls into the occupied Thebes; there are maps and old books. Putting those things on display, they reel off, in nearly toneless voices, exam-type questions of a decidedly absurd variety: “If a rock weighing 75 grams / and flying through the air at 200 kilometres per hour / can shatter a human pelvis / we then are we this beautiful?” and so on; easily the most compelling one: “If the answer is ‘man’ / what is the question?” In Crimp, these are just streams of questions; the symbolic overlay is all Mitchell, as is the tone.

I don’t tend to think all that much about the relationship between script and performance when watching a play, but here I did a bit — largely because I had managed to read the first few scenes beforehand and was surprised how differently they felt on the page compared to what was happening on stage. Crimp’s characters all have a fairly sardonic, even slapdash tone. Not consistently, not all the time, but more often than not. They’re clearly not meant to sound like figures from ancient Greek tragedy. This is especially true of the younger generation. In the production, though, that colloquial, slightly snotty tone is all but gone, and with it much of the attitude of some of the figures. Antigone, in the text, is eager to see the battle, unruly, rude, imperious, curious, difficult to control — and she’s not at all traumatized by what is happening to her (there’s even a stage direction to that effect: “Antigone reacts with excitement, not with fear”). That’s not completely erased in Mitchell’s staging, but it’s very muted. The overwhelming theme, the impression the production strives for again and again is that the chorus, this highly regimented, almost mechanical troupe of young women, drives everything, controls everyone, and leaves very little room for any of the characters to experience the re-enactment of their past lives as anything but torturous. Antigone may not be as traumatized as Iocaste, but nor is she into the performance the way Crimp’s script suggests she is. In that sense, the staging is more single-minded, perhaps more coherent, but also less complex than the text: the characters aren’t given the same range of attitudes towards the re-enactment experience. The show is all about trauma and repetition — an externalized kind of repetition compulsion.

That last point came across quite forcibly for me, and it still seems a more interesting view of what’s happening than Mitchell’s strangely literal realist account in the interview. I’d rather see the chorus as a representation of a mental force than as a bunch of real-life necromancer-torturers. It also makes better sense, frankly, of the single most astonishing feat in the entire production: the repeated moments in which the action rewinds. In one case, towards the end of the play, it’s nearly an entire scene, elaborately choreographed, that rewinds — everything we’ve just seen we now see again, except in reverse. Physically, it’s utterly mind-blowing work, astonishingly smooth and precise. It’s also a little ironic to see such a quintessentially filmic effect in Katie Mitchell’s first German theatre piece without cameras on stage. But once I’d picked my jaw off the floor, I did wonder what exactly was meant to happen in those moments. It would be one thing if the chorus had the power to rewind everything at will (if they’re necromancers, they can be time benders too, right?). But that’s not actually what happens. The chorus, too, gets rewound: all the girls run backwards up the stairs, through doors, across the stage. In these scenes, the choral controllers are no longer in charge: they’re being readjusted along with everyone else. Who’s controlling the controllers?

One more thing about those rewound scenes. In a sense, they encapsulate what makes the production such a remarkable blend of English and German theatre. On the one hand, this is a very high level of realism: like the set, what the actors do looks just like real life. They really look like a film running backwards. Really really real. But of course what that reality-effect transports, what it conveys, isn’t reality at all. This is not, after all, a film (or is it?). Life can’t be rewound. The action we’re watching is actually symbolic, even in a certain way abstract — but it’s portrayed by the same means that can also create a semblance of real life.

That approach runs through the production. As Mitchell told Haydon (and as the production’s dramaturg also mentioned to me), the cast spent three weeks immersing themselves in their characters’ biographies, improvising extended family scenes and bits of backstory, before they were thrown into the play. In that sense, this is an exercise in high naturalism. And in their responses to the situation they find themselves in, they also employ the means of psychological realism: we get to see actors portraying real people being forced to re-enact their past, and these people respond with the kind of anguish we might expect. Adding another layer to that mix, these people then perform a text that speaks of the trauma of the Theban occupation and the war between the brothers — and convey that trauma alongside and through the trauma of its re-enactment (and the trauma of being forced to re-live the past). It’s a highly complex exercise in naturalistic acting. But: the situation itself is utterly non-naturalistic, fantastical even. The actors are being asked to use one particular set of stylistic means to stage a fiction that is at its heart very far removed from a naturalistically organized world. It looks real; it feels real; and it very obviously isn’t real. (The chorus, in a way, is there to remind us that none of this is real — because the chorus operates in a rather different stylistic register than the other figures, a bit like a Robert Wilson show without makeup.)

Another but: insisting that what we see on stage isn’t real, or even a representation of reality, is a total staple of contemporary German staging. It’s been a trope in literally every single show I’ve seen this trip. Yet, that’s not what Mitchell is up to, I think. In fact, what’s remarkable about Alles Weitere… is how very firmly its fourth wall is in place. Not once do any of the actors acknowledge the audience; not once do they let the mask slip. The chorus is a chorus. Iocaste is Iocaste. Creon is Creon (even if he feels utterly alienated from his own existence — as the play goes on, he loses all understanding of how time works in his world). The distance between reality and what is being staged here is not the distance between reality and representation; when the chorus firmly locates the play in the realm of fantasy it precisely doesn’t try to remind us that we are watching a play. Instead, it ensures that we understand that this world before us doesn’t work quite the same as our own, that its not meant to reflect the real, but serves as a physical manifestation of a discursive or symbolic set of propositions or forces. In other words, Mitchell doesn’t deconstruct the operation of representation as such (as practically every contemporary German director probably would); rather, she redefines what her naturalism is meant to represent. That’s intriguing in itself — but it’s also very unlike most German theatre in its reliance on the theatre’s world-making powers.

One final thought: it can’t be a coincidence that this confidence in theatre as a representation machine goes hand in hand with a highly regimented, rigorously choreographed approach to acting. This is the least playful show I’ve seen on a German stage outside the Berliner Ensemble’s. There is very obviously no room whatsoever for improvisation here, for an actor taking his or her time or space, for things changing drastically from evening to evening. (It’s no surprise that the rehearsal process focussed on working through movements and precisely defining the various layers of the characters’ emotions and experiences; improvisation helped clarify the figures before work on the play proper began, but no longer, as I understand it, played a part in the process once those figures were being put on stage and into the play.) The freedom I so admire and enjoy in German acting was mostly absent here, to an even greater degree even than in Michael Thalheimer’s most reduced and bare productions. And the connection between audience and actor that I just the other day associated so directly with the proscenium stage was also quite deliberately severed in this show: these are figures from a different world, and the arch is the impenetrable border between us and them. Many other attributes of German acting were, of course, in evidence: the remarkable physical precision, the athleticism, the ability to be in the moment — all of that was there. However, Mitchell’s fundamental realism ultimately depends on keeping those highly skilled actors on a tight leash, on not letting the ropes show.

Hers is not a theatre that wears its theatricality on its sleeve: it’s not the kind of theatre that wants to be experienced as theatre. Whereas in another production, I could have imagined Julia Wieninger (Iocaste) looking up and pointing out to us how interesting her compulsive finger-twisting was as an acting choice, only to then drop back into character right away and carry on, this would clearly have been out of bounds in Alles Weitere…. It would be too simple, obviously, to say that these actors are being asked to play real people. But they are being asked to disappear into the complex, not-quite-real figures they embody on stage. In fact, I’d say Mitchell’s entire representational approach depends on such a disappearance. And that strikes me as much closer to an English idea of what actors do than to the ideas that currently hold sway in German theatre. What’s remarkable (and, if it makes sense to generalize like that, very un-English) is that she is using this rather un-German approach in the pursuit of an intellectually rigorous and complex theatrical project that in its ambitions and goals does seem much more at home on German stages and in the context of a German theatre discourse than in the UK. It’s a fascinating marriage.

2 Responses to Alles Weitere Kennen Sie aus dem Kino (Martin Crimp/Katie Mitchell), Deutsches Schauspielhaus Hamburg (May 2014)

  1. Dennis Hayes says:

    good writing. i would appreciate a clarification of the statement in the last paragraph, “it’s not the kind of theatre that wants to be experienced as theatre.” i suspect my embrace of the idea of theatre (“as theatre”) is somewhat larger, perhaps less defined, or . . . ? i am enjoying keeping up with your journey and your experiences, holger.

    • Holger Syme says:

      Oh, it’s theatre all right. The emphasis in that phrase should have been on “experience,” I suppose: what I mean is that Mitchell’s surfaces are very hard, very glossy, not really permeable — she doesn’t direct in a way that keeps the audience conscious of the fact that we’re watching a live performance, that what we’re asked to believe isn’t what is actually happening, and so on. In pretty much every other show I’ve seen on this trip, when an actor looked out at the audience, she looked at us, and sometimes addressed us directly; here, we’re clearly not in the same room as the characters (or even the actors). That’s all — it’s not that I don’t think Alles Weitere… is theatre, it’s just not metatheatrical at all.

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