The theatre trip I’m on right now is as exhilarating as it is exhausting, and I have nowhere near enough time to write about what I’m seeing. I’ll probably do a short-form round up of sorts in the next couple of days. But the other night, I saw a production that I have to write about. It encapsulated what is so uniquely compelling about German theatre for me. And it didn’t take place in Berlin, or in Hamburg, or in Munich, or in Cologne, or even in Stuttgart (where Armin Petras, formerly of the great Maxim Gorki Theater, has now set up shop) — but in Mannheim, a relatively nondescript city whose moment of cultural importance came and went almost two centuries ago.
The Mannheim Nationaltheater is not a completely insignificant house: its opera is one of the largest auditoria in Germany, and the theatre was invited to the Theatertreffen a few times in the 1980s and 90s. But it’s not a place that tends to set trends. It’s not really on the circuit of theatres that play host to the hip young directors or the established big names. Calixto Bieito directs there from time to time, but that’s about it. The ensemble is similarly devoid of really recognizable names. It’s a well-regarded theatre, but not, as far as I can tell, one with much national clout — its audience is largely local. And yet, the production of Ibsen’s Wild Duck I saw there tonight, directed by Elmar Goerden (a respected director with a somewhat patchy history of critical success), was perhaps the most complete, most satisfying, and most effective show I’ve seen on this trip.
I should say that it wasn’t as stunning as some other productions: it didn’t have the moments of intense theatrical joy I experienced in Dimiter Gotscheff’s Ivanov at the Volksbühne; it didn’t feature performances quite as awe-inspiring as Bibiana Beglau’s or Britta Hammelstein’s in Frank Castorf’s Journey to the End of the Night; it wasn’t as rich in its imagery as Simon Solberg’s Kabale und Liebe; it wasn’t as radical in its rigour as Gotscheff’s Persians at the Deutsche Theater; it wasn’t driven by the same (slightly megalomaniac) ambition as Karin Beier’s Die Rasenden at the Deutsche Schauspielhaus in Hamburg; and it wasn’t as seamlessly smooth as Katie Mitchell’s Alles Weitere…. But where those productions (with the exception of Ivanov, I suppose) all felt in some sense incomplete, all were impressive for only part of the evening, this show had an emotional pull, a dramaturgical rigour, and a narrative force that allowed it to build from beginning to end. Its highs weren’t as high, but it occupied a kind of aesthetic middle ground very, very well.
Here’s the thing: there is a (small) downside to the avant-garde ethos of so much German theatre. It sometimes seems to me that directors and companies are driven to make something new, to explore different approaches, so much that the resulting productions are necessarily a bit unfinished, or that so much energy is devoted to breaking things up, reinventing things, that more basic (and perhaps, in a sense, less important) concerns fall by the wayside — concerns such as “will this read?,” “what about the audience?,” or “does this all hang together?” Sometimes, a willful disregard for such questions becomes programatic, of course (as in Castorf’s work). Mostly, I don’t care: I’m happy to struggle through an hour of problems if it leads to ten minutes of theatrical bliss, to something that does work and that I’ve never seen before. This Wild Duck didn’t reach those heights, but it didn’t have to, either. I don’t think it broke new ground formally. But what it did do, remarkably, was to use an arsenal of visual and stylistic elements familiar from recent path-breaking productions in a way that didn’t jettison the evening’s cohesion.
The reason I find that such an extraordinary achievement is that although this Ibsen looked absolutely nothing like any Ibsen I’ve ever seen in an English-speaking production, although in many ways this wasn’t an exercise in realism at all (at least not formally), although there was nothing about this show that resembled the narrative or actorly logic of film, I was at the edge of my seat for almost the entire fifth act. And in this ability to combine abstraction and immersion, in being both utterly theatrical and deliberately inauthentic AND capable of arousing empathy and involvement, this show strikes me as a perfect and wonderfully effective example of the pretty much unique power of German theatre. Yes, it’s art. Yes, it’s challenging. But it can also go beyond being intellectually riveting, and go straight for the gut.
In that sense, this Mannheim Wild Duck is sort of a perfect counter to Thomas Ostermeier’s frustrated attack on what he calls “Scheißdekonstruktion” — fucking deconstruction. Ostermeier offers a slick, contextually specific, psychologically realist, and explicitly mimetic theatre aesthetic in place of these supposedly destructive and supposedly politically impotent forms of theatre. What I saw in Mannheim was a much more interesting, much less retrograde kind of response: an effort to embrace the deliberate theatricality of the German avant-garde without losing the structural coherence of an older, more conservative tradition. Whereas Ostermeier insists (channelling Bernd Stegemann) that “if you deconstruct everything, you can’t tell coherent narratives anymore, and then it becomes impossible to see connections,” Goerden and his team show that it’s perfectly possible to combine a deconstructive sensibility with dramaturgical or narrative cohesion — that, in other words, formal conservatism isn’t the only possible alternative to radical narrative disconnect.
So what does this middle way look like? For starters, there’s the set. Yes, there is a set — it’s not just an empty stage, or an empty stage filled with things. Nor is the kind of stylized realist set one might find in an Ostermeier Ibsen (or a Kimmig Chekhov or Gorky at the Deutsches Theater). Instead, it’s a kind of abstract shape, mostly a visually well-defined space for playing. Difficult to describe, in fact: it looks like a huge green-screen setup (except it’s all white), flowing into a sharply acute angle and dropping down to the audience downstage. From my seat, it looked like this:
You can get another, better idea from this shot:
Floor and walls don’t meet in a 90-degree angle, but form a curve, and multiple actors used those curves to run into and then slide off the walls at various points. Morphologically, the set triggers multiple relevant resonances: it looks a bit like sheets of paper (and there are lots of letters in the play); it looks a bit like an open book, but in its blankness, also an illegible book (and blindness is a recurring theme); and it looks like a photographer’s screen (and most of the play is, of course, set in a studio). None of these resonances ever ossify into actual signification, though. And needless to say, what the set never looks like is someone’s attic. It does define a space — a space open enough to then be redefined as multiple different places, and even multiple coexisting places, through the placement of figures in its expansive, blank landscape. It’s totally abstract, invites efforts at literal reading, and remains open to specific concretization all at the same time.
To begin with, the set is completely empty except for an amp, a microphone stand, and two guitars. From the opening black light it switches, radically and painfully, to a bright white at the top of the show. This motif of sudden, glaring lighting changes will repeat itself a couple of times. It’s painful and a bit disorienting every time — and it implicates the audience in the play’s persistent theme of disturbed or failing vision. Why is the amp there? Because throughout the play, a musician performs snatches of melodies, riffs, sometimes entire songs; sometimes she just slaps her bass or aggressively strums her guitar to accentuate emotionally charged scenes. She easily slips in and out of the world of the play — at times, other characters acknowledge her; at times, she and her instruments interact with those characters, especially when she’s providing a musical correlative to a character’s emotional state; at times, she’s evidently not bodily present to the rest of the cast; at times, she sits down at the dinner table with them, having fish salad, noodling on her guitar. Using an onstage musician is hardly original in Germany, nor is it innovative to use contemporary live music to accompany an older play (off the top of my head, I saw a live guitarist in Johan Simon’s Uncle Vanya at the Kammerspiele in Munich last year, a full band in Stefan Pucher’s Hedda Gabler at the DT, and so on). What’s noteworthy in Goerden’s production, though, is how much the musician is part of the scene: he doesn’t just delegate the illustration or realization of emotions to the music, but places actors and musician in a dynamic relationship that allows them to play out the heightened stakes of particular scenes and moments through interactions with each other. Like the set, the guitarist can function in multiple, seemingly mutually exclusive ways: she’s both present and absent, a person in the play and merely the source of extradiegetic music, an actor and a stage musician.
This doubleness runs through the entire show: the text is both Ibsen, and it isn’t; the actors both speak lines, and they don’t; the fantastical attic full of trees and wild life is both real and purely imaginary (we never actually see it); the acting is highly theatrical and over the top but also, in turn, utterly restrained, in the moment, true-to-life. These may seem like binaries, or something like it, but they’re not: they’re sets of options from which the production picks and chooses as its dramaturgical instincts require; not with a view to consistency, but in the interest of scenic efficiency. And somehow, the overall effect is not one of disruption, but of coherence. I’d guess that this coherence stems from the reliability with which scenes and moments “land” here. That they land differently, in a way incoherently, from scene to scene, or from moment to moment, doesn’t matter: it’s the fact that the evening, in progress and in retrospect, functions as a solid sequence of such hits that gives it its overall shape and structure.
As so often in German theatre, the success of the show rests on the actors’ ability to switch register rapidly and inhabit the space in a way that gives an air of inevitability to whatever choices they make (that’s very wooly, I know, but I’m struggling to describe it more concretely or in less mushy terms). The greatest misunderstanding about German theatre is that it’s all concept-driven and dominated by directors: it’s not. It’s actors’ theatre. It may be Goerden’s concept, for instance, that Hedvig in The Wild Duck is both a child and a young person awakening to adult emotions and desires, someone who over the course of the play moves back and forth between innocence and disillusion (or it may not be — that may, for all I know, be something that emerged over weeks of rehearsal). But either way, it’s Anne-Marie Lux’s performance that actually creates this sense of a character hovering on the cusp of adulthood. This may sound like psychological realism, and the effect of her performance isn’t too far removed from that: at least for me, a sense of Hedvig as a person did emerge. However, the means by which Lux produced that effect were not those of naturalistic acting. Her child-like Hedvig was big, clownish at times, loud — a bit like an over-excited kid putting on a show at a party. The defining moment for that figure came early, when she performed a parlour trick for her onstage audience (and us), celebrating her own cleverness in brash, highly theatrical tones. That child-like, slightly over-the-top persona and arsenal of gestures remained available to her throughout the show. But there was also a different Hedvig: the Hedvig that responds to her grandfather producing a skinned rabbit with a shock that reads, at first, as the shock of the child at seeing a horrid object and then instantly transforms into a rather darker thing, the shocked disappointment of the young adult who was left out of the killing and skinning. It’s the latter persona that queries Old Ekdal, seriously, earnestly, about how to best kill a wild duck. Later, though, it’s the child-like Hedvig again that responds to her father’s rejection by hiding in various spots on stage rather than leaving as she’s been told to do, who crawls into a tub half-full of water to become “invisible” because she doesn’t want to exit — but having seen that same actor, that same actor’s body perform adult actions and sound like an adult, this now no longer reads as a grown-up performer impersonating a child, but as a young adult clinging to the safety of childish gestures and ideas, the comfort of the notion that disappearing from her father’s life is an action she could just play, a thing that doesn’t have to become real. Except it does, as she is forced to understand as she slinks off, soaked, dragging her wet socks behind her.
I’m not sure I’m quite getting at what is so interesting about this performance (and similar moments in the other actors’ performances): it creates an effect that is legible in psychological terms, it produces character-effects, even emotional responses (mine and, as far as I could tell, other audience members’), but it doesn’t rely on straightforwardly realist modes of acting. Looked at moment for moment, choice by choice, there is no question that what Lux is doing is playing at being a human. Her choices are all quite recognizable as choices. The acting here is never hidden. But despite this — well, let’s call it actorly honesty, or upfrontness — the effect is still the creation of a “real” character, a figure that emerges out of the actor’s choices and moves, a figure that’s never quite identical with the actor, that’s never less than fictional, imaginary, but that still is somehow there.
To me, that is a kind of realism — and a realism, crucially, that takes into account and reflects the reality of its modes of production. It’s a realism that connects what the real actors are doing on the real (abstract, formless, empty, whatever) stage with what the imaginary figures that themselves stand for some sort of extra-theatrical reality do and feel, but that never collapses one into the other: the principle of connection isn’t similarity or superficial identity. The act of making remains visible at all times. But the making also happens. And it’s that doubleness, that ability to be both real and fictional, to play and be true, that fuels the specific power of German theatre.
(If you’re interested, there are some clips of the show in this video, starting at around 3:10.)
A long postscript:
I haven’t said anything about the text. That’s sort of symptomatic: here, as in most German productions, the point is not to put an interpretation of an existing text on its feet, but rather to create a performance that does something with the text, treats it as raw material out of which a show can be made. Accordingly, Ibsen’s play has been cut and refashioned: Old Werle’s fiancée is gone, as are the two neighbours of the Ekdals; along with them, most of the philosophical debates have disappeared from the play. The ending is also very different: Hjalmar’s decision to stay seems to have much more to do with a re-discovered sense of comfort in his relationship (and a profound unwillingness to upset his entire life and face all the hard work that would take) than with Gregers’ revelation that Hedvik is about to kill her beloved wild duck for him. And everything is over once the child’s lifeless body is discovered – the pages of talky reflection that follow that moment in Ibsen have been cut.
On the other hand, there are plenty of additions. For one thing, Hedvik overhears her father talking to Gregers about her impending blindness. In an intriguing change, the production has Hjalmar use a phrase from Ibsen, but in English translation. It’s an oddly poetic phrase – “Like a little bird, into the eternal night of life” (or something like that) – but in English, in this production full of snatches from English pop songs, it sounds like a repurposed lyric. Hedvik hears it and writes it down, and then gets Gregers to explain to her what its literal meaning. She figures out what her father meant on her own. (It’s a funny scene: the line is just a sequence of meaningless sounds to the non-Anglophone child, and Gregers first teaches her how to make the sounds into words before translating them. But it’s also a melancholy rehearsal, on the auditory level, of the sensory deprivation or estrangement that Hedvik is doomed to experience before long.) There are tons of other additions like this: a recurring theme of Gregers trying to get Gina and Hedvik to call him by his first name and use the informal second person pronoun when talking to him (“du” rather than “sie”); another recurring motif of dead, skinned rabbits and Old Ekdal’s insistence that their meat is delicious and “sugar sweet;” an extended scene between Gina and Old Werle; a brief and slightly enigmatic scene between Old Ekdal and Old Werle, which leads to the latter writing the gift letter to Hedvik (but not to her grandfather); and unlike in Ibsen, here we don’t have to infer that Gregers has told Hjalmar about Gina’s and Werle’s affair: he stages a dumb show for him, arranging the actors like figures in tableau photographs or stop-motion animation.
These may seem like radical alterations – they would certainly lead to the production being advertised as an “adaptation” of Ibsen’s play in most English-speaking theatres. But as changes go, they’re fairly unremarkable on a German stage. I don’t know where they came from: it’s possible that dramaturge and/or director came up with them on their own. More likely, they emerged out of the rehearsal process, as elements that allowed the company to clarify the points they wanted to make via the raw material of Ibsen’s text.
Ultimately more important than these textual and dramaturgical changes, though, is how the actors treat their text, and I think it is there that the actual, fundamental difference between most Anglophone approaches to acting and at least one dominant tendency in German stage performance becomes apparent. It’s a matter of tone. The actors in this production never sound like they’re speaking someone else’s lines. They may sound over the top and wildly theatrical at times, and highly colloquial at other moments, but whatever they do – however they sound – seems driven by a performance choice, a decision about the staged moment, the scene as it emerges between actors, and rarely if ever appears motivated by a desire to do justice to the text, remain true to ideas or imperatives prescribed by the script, or follow an author’s intentions. In a very real sense, the text simply disappears in performance here – it becomes immaterial. That’s to say, talking about how the text has been adapted may be of some limited relevance to those of us interested in stagings of Ibsen, but talking about these adaptations as if they were what drives this show is missing the point. The text isn’t altered so that a particular kind of performance can take place; the text is altered to follow the imperatives and needs that emerge as that performance is coming together. Performance, in other words, drives text here, not the other way round.
Two more small-ish points about how this show differs from Ibsen’s play, though (at the risk of missing the point some more). In the text, Gregers’ motivation is weird, but also fairly clear: he wants to reveal the great lie on which his friend Hjalmar’s life is based to allow him to realize his (supposedly) enormous potential to lead a genuinely good life – to have a true and honest marriage. In this, he’s caught in a philosophical conflict with Dr Relling, the Ekdals’ neighbour, who sees a faithfully guarded set of lies about oneself as essential to a happy existence. Most of that is gone here. What drives Gregers instead is a complicated mixture of an apparent desire for revenge (as he believes Gina was responsible for his mother’s suicide) and a deeper desire to build the kind of family he never had. There are elements of both of these in Ibsen, but they’re much stronger in Goerden’s production. Gregers can’t mention his mother without sobbing (one of the less successful theatrical gestures of the evening); and it is clear that the ideal family he is trying to craft will include him – he is not just doing this for his friend, he is doing it out of self-interest as well. His desperation to get Gina and Hedvik to talk to him in familiar (and familial) terms is one of the ways in which the production stages his attempts to graft himself onto the Ekdal family; his repeated scenes of familial, largely non-sexualized intimate encounters with Hedvik are another. At the same time, Gregers is portrayed, visually and through his costume, as a total outsider – he wears what look like 19th-century uniform trousers (unlike the more dress everyone else is wearing); and his haircut looks a bit like Hitler’s after sleeping rough for a couple of nights, presumably a vague allusion to the quasi-fascistic ramifications of his readiness to control and reshape another person’s life. The show sets Gregers up as a character whose actions are legible fairly clearly in psychological terms – but here, too, the means by which that character and his psychology are created are not those of psychological realism.
Lastly, a word about the ending. Here, the show really just develops what is already present in Ibsen’s text, but it does it very effectively. In both play and production, it becomes clear pretty quickly that Hjalmar doesn’t actually want to leave Gina – in large part out of inertia. As the consequences of moving out become ever more clear, his resolve shrinks. In Mannheim, those consequences took physical form: as Hjalmar talks about all the stuff he has to pack, all the rubbish he has to sort through, he does not, as he does in Ibsen, go into the other room to rummage through a chest of drawers. Instead, he sits on a chair as stagehands throw more and more stuff from the wings (including a bunch of car tires). As the detritus piles up, he visibly weakens. And here as in Ibsen, Gina takes note and makes fun of him for it. After that, it doesn’t take long for Hjalmar to rediscover how comfortable he feels in their domestic mess; the abiding anguish he experiences in the text about Hedvik’s paternity is quite muted in the production, with Gregers’ revelation that she is going to sacrifice the wild duck distinctly out of sync with what Hjalmar needs or expects. It’s that mismatch, and the mismatch between Gregers’ solemnity and the silly, easy, jokey atmosphere that immediately develops again between the Ekdals, that creates the terrifying sense of foreboding in the production’s final minutes: everything seems to be going so well, there is such a sense of rediscovered harmony, of the re-emergence of a messy, kind of grubby, kind of crazy, very hippy-ish and trippy alterna household, that the realization (in my case, having read the play, the near-certain knowledge) that this is all about to fall completely and irretrievably to pieces makes the momentary happiness almost unbearable to watch. The catastrophe finally arrives as Hjalmar, with a dopey grin, picks up the camera to “take a selfie” (that’s what he says) of himself and Gina – a selfie in which they are about to be photobombed by Gregers entering behind them carrying Hedvik’s lifeless body. And blackout.
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- The Changeling (Middleton & Rowley; dir. Jackie Maxwell) Stratford, July 2017
- How to Kill a Great Theatre: The Tragedy of the Volksbühne
- Three Sisters (Chekhov/Stone; dir. Simon Stone) Theater Basel/Theatertreffen, May 2017
- British Theatre under the Influence (of much more than The Roman Tragedies)
- Hamlet (Shakespeare; dir. Robert Icke) Almeida, London; Mar. 2017
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Holger Syme's work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.
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