Jette Steckel’s production of Arthur Schnitzler’s Das Weite Land at the Deutsche Theater makes no efforts to reinvent much of anything. It’s a very well done, moderately inventive staging of a classic — and it’s remarkable precisely because it is so unremarkable in context. This is simply a good example of what “normal” looks like on a German stage. And it’s therefore a very useful test case to focus on precisely what makes that “normal” so very different from standard treatments of classics in the English-speaking theatre.

But this is just a quick, off-the-cuff write up, so I’ll proceed in bullet-point form:

A) Why is the only Schnitzler play that ever gets done in English La Ronde? (I lie, I lie — Soulpepper in Toronto did Anatol a while back. Right?) He’s such a good playwright — and I’m certain that he deserves to be adapted into English by someone other than Stoppard (whose version of Das Weite Land, Undiscovered Country was staged at the NT in 1979 and has been revived a few times in the US since then). I haven’t read Undiscovered Country, but the title isn’t promising: in Schnitzler, the “expansive landscape” of the title is a metaphor for the soul (or the mind); “undiscovered country” obviously has rather different connotations.

B) So, to get to the meat of my argument, what is so unremarkable about this show? All of this: Schnitzler’s text has been cut fairly drastically (obviously), a few characters have been removed (big deal), none of the set directions have in any way been respected (of course), everyone is in contemporary dress (and?). And yet, basically, this is a highly accomplished German version of the UK model of “standing the play on its feet.” It’s not what Jette Steckel, the director, does all the time — but when she does it, she does it well. And of course in a German theatre, standing the play on its feet can involve a set consisting of a 9-metre-tall tower of about 50 designer sofas, spinning slowly on a revolve.

C) All the actors sound as if they were just talking. They speak Schnitzler’s lines (I read the play on the train back to Berlin, so I know) — and they are lines that sound like fin-de-siecle language, not like the German spoken in 21st-century Berlin. And yet, these actors make them sound as if they were. It’s partly about tone; it’s partly about delivery; it’s partly about freedom — they add a little word here or there, the stammer, they pause, they ad-lib. The effect is one of bringing a hundred-year-old text into the present without losing either its pastness or reducing the presence of the performance: it’s in no way museum theatre.

D) The show is basically an exercise in psychological realism. But that doesn’t mean characters don’t walk around in a big circle on stage, around and around the tower of sofas. It doesn’t mean characters don’t climb the mountain of sofas for all sorts of reasons (because their bedroom is somewhere up there; because they’re excited; because they’re recalling an evening in the mountains; because it works for the moment; etc.). It doesn’t mean that a character can’t stand centre stage for three minutes, staring out into the audience, while a Nick Cave song plays. It doesn’t mean actors have to behave like real people all the time. But it means that they sound, more or less, like real people, and that the ultimate reference point of their acting is character psychology — and character psychology is perhaps the most important bridge between Schnitzler’s time and ours.

E) Duels as a plot point are one of those things that translate very awkwardly into the 21st century even in a production such as this. All of the other patterns of thought and behaviour still make sense — the way some of these people respond to desire may feel more than a little hysterical, none of it feels simply incomprehensible. But when a duel becomes inevitable because one character calls another a coward in public (precisely to provoke a duel) — that opens up a historical chasm.

F) Ulrich Matthes really is a fantastic actor of little gestures and vocal pauses. Felix Goeser, when he’s on, is flat-out brilliant. Maren Eggert has a way of turning insecurity and awkwardness into stage presence that is totally unique and totally captivating. And Anna Drexler, 25 years old, who debuted at the Kammerspiele in Munich two years ago when she took on Sonya in Uncle Vanya, in her final year of theatre school, at two weeks’ notice, is a huge talent and will be famous within a few years. I’m not always wowed by the work the DT puts on, and it’s often way too middle-of-the-road — but it has one of the greatest ensembles of actors anywhere in the world.

G) Almut Zilcher playing the minor part of a famous actress, and updating one of Schnitzler’s references by delivering a pitch-perfect Martin Wuttke parody was nearly worth the price of admission on her own.

H) Watch the trailer. That’s what a very well done but fairly middle-of-the-road production of a 100-year-old play looks like here — and as far as I’m concerned, that’s exactly how things should be:

Leave a Reply