Monday, 1 June 2015

Postcard from Berlin [2] 

The Story of Berlin/Theatertreffen (2): The Unmarried Ones/Tacita Dean: Event for a Stage

On Wednesday morning I visit ‘The Story of Berlin’: a rather cheesy interactive museum for tourists and school-groups located in a shopping arcade on the Kurfürstendamm. Its biggest drawcard is an underground nuclear bunker which was built in the 1970s and ostensibly meant to house 3,600 people and provide them with shelter, food, water and air until the immediate effects of radiation had abated. I join a group of French, American and Japanese tourists led by a cheerful young student. We follow her into an underground carpark, squeeze into a tiny elevator and descend several floors to emerge into a vast concrete underworld. Our guide conducts us through a labyrinth of corridors and chambers filled with wash-basins (no mirrors), showers (no curtains) and toilet-cubicles (no doors), culminating in a cavernous space filled with row after row of narrow bunks tightly stacked four layers high. I can’t help wondering how long people would have survived down here, in what conditions, or to what ultimate end. In fact the whole set-up makes me think of a subterranean concentration camp; at best, a clumsy exercise in propaganda; at worst, a grim extension of totalitarianism – and this, be it noted, in the so-called ‘free zone’ of the former West Berlin.

The rest of the museum (located in the upper floors of the shopping arcade) is a little more kitsch, with stairways and room-displays leading chronologically through the city’s history, and featuring costumed mannequins, theatrical sets, furniture, props and sound-effects. When we get to the Weimar Republic, there’s even a miniature cinema screening excerpts from the heyday of the silent and early sound era, when German films briefly led the world. Then comes the Depression, political chaos, and things rapidly go downhill: a long winding staircase literally descends to a basement level with room after room documenting the successive catastrophes of Nazism, the Second World War, the Holocaust, the Allied destruction of Berlin, and the subsequent decades of Communism and the Cold War.

I re-emerge into the thriving bustle of modern-day Kufürstendamm with its fashion outlets, chain-stores and advertising billboards an hour later with the sense that no comparable European capital city witnessed such reversals of fortune, whether self-inflicted or externally imposed (which is not to minimize the devastations of Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima or Nagasaki). In the case of Berlin, a thoroughly modernized avant-garde metropolis that rivalled London, Paris or New York once went through the same whirwind as Baghdad or Damascus now. It’s a sobering reminder for those of us who’ve grown up associating such images of destruction with the underdeveloped world, from Vietnam to Iraq – and somehow brings such contemporary zones of war and conflict closer to home. Further down the Kufürstendamm I pass the bombed ruins of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church flanked by its 1950s brutalist concrete, steel and glass successor and matching bell-tower. Past and present co-habit uneasily in this city of scars and memories.


That night at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele I see a classic example of what might be called the contemporary German-language trauma-play. In fact it’s one of two productions from Vienna by the Burgtheater in Akademietheater that have been selected by the jury of the Theatertreffen. Die Unverheirateten (‘The Unmarried’) is a new play by Ewald Palmetshofer, directed and designed by Robert Borgmann. The story concerns a woman, ‘The Old One’ (played by famous Viennese stage veteran Elisabeth Orth) who reported a soldier to the Nazi authorities for talking about desertion during the closing months of the war. Her ‘betrayal’ led to his execution, and after the war she was herself tried and imprisoned by the Allied authorities for being a Nazi informer. However, she had also fallen pregnant to the same soldier, and given birth to a daughter, ‘The Middle One’ (Christiane von Pöllnitz) – who in turn subsequently had a daughter of her own, ‘The Young One’ (Stefanie Reinsperger), again without acknowledging the identity of the father. All three generations of women keep secrets from each other, and needless to say have failed to find permanent partners or have stable relationships. Now the grandmother has been hospitalized with a stroke; her grandaughter visits her; and the truth about the past begins to emerge.

Palmetshofer uses a heightened poetic language (I had to rely heavily on the English surtitles) which tumbles out mostly in monologues delivered either directly to the audience or to one of the other women as silent interlocutors. Borgmann’s staging is similarly abstract, dynamic, metaphorical and even visceral: the floor is covered with earth with which the actors smear or bury themselves (and even at one point shove into their mouths); wooden furniture is hacked with axes; billowing walls of cloth repeatedly rise and fall like huge curtains. There’s also a slightly camp cabaret chorus of four younger women who intermittently (and somewhat gratingly) comment on the action (I found these sections the least persuasive in the show). The three central performances however are gripping, especially the mostly immobile and impassive figure of Orth as the grandmother. All in all, despite some welcome leavenings of humour (mostly from Reinsperger as the accordion-playing, wisecracking, self-degrading grandaughter), it’s a relentlessly grim two hours of trauma-theatre, even if there’s a sense of reconciliation and healing at the end. I’m reminded a little of Bernard Schlink’s novel The Reader, another parable of guilt, betrayal, secrets, misunderstandings, recrimination and (perhaps) forgiveness. The Unmarried however comes across more like an all-female post-war Oresteia. Once again, German theatre reaches back to its Greek antecedents.


On Thursday afternoon I catch up with an Austrian friend who lives and works in Berlin as an actor, singer and teacher. We meet in Schöneberg and have lunch (Spargel, the huge, white and deliciously sweet asparagus that are currently in season and dominate every street vendor’s stall and restaurant menu). Then we wander the streets of her neighborhood, and she tells me about living and working here. I’m envious of all the permanent ensemble companies; but as she points out, not every actor is suited to that kind of employment regime; and I sense the same old conflict between job security and creative freedom that bedevils actors everywhere. Oh, well. At least in Berlin you have a choice.

She walks me back to the Festspiele, where I’m seeing the premiere screening of English visual artist Tacita Dean’s Event for a Stage. Dean is an artist I admire, especially for her work in (and advocacy for) the medium (and materiality) of film as an endangered species (as opposed to video, which is rapidly displacing it). Invited to make a work of theatre for the first time in 1994, she approached the English actor Stephen Dillane (perhaps best known for his TV work in John Adams and Game of Thrones, but previously a stage actor renowned for his Hamlet and one-man Macbeth) and invited him to collaborate with her on a project, without knowing exactly what it would turn out to be.

In the 'event', so to speak, four consecutive public performances by Dillane were staged in the round at Carriageworks in Sydney and filmed by two roving cameras circling the actor (and each other). This in turn provided the raw material for a 50-minute film based on shots spliced together from all four performances (Dillane wore a different wig each night and varied his facial hair). The text (which also appears to be at least partly by Dillane) is based on conversations with Dean, reflections on acting and performance, revelations about recent family losses, a speech from The Tempest by Prospero to his daughter, and extracts from Kleist’s famous essay ‘On the Marionette Theatre’ –which among other things outlines a kind of natural history of consciousness and posits the ultimate supercession of the live performer by the marionette (and perhaps more generally of the human by the machine).

Beneath the text and performance one senses a testiness verging on hostility from the actor towards the artist and the project itself. Some extracts from the published script (which tellingly is credited to Dean alone without acknowledging the evident role of Dillane as at least its co-author) illustrate this tension, which for me animated the work with a sense of drama (and indeed dramatic irony, to refer again to Kleist) and raised it above the level of conceptual art or mere dissertation:

The artist told me she has filmed people before…but this time she is trying to film a process, a craft, a profession. She is interested in what she calls ‘self-consciousness’…It is something she doesn’t like to see in her films, she says, her subjects being aware of themselves, aware of themselves being watched…

She ­– the artist – asked me to play the role of an actor, the role of the actor being filmed on stage. She said she wanted to make a portrait of an actor on context, in his natural habitat, like a beast in its lair. 

I said I don’t really do stage acting anymore.

‘Don’t you?’ she said. ‘Well, why did you agree to come?’

Dillane delivers all this with barely disguised irritation – occasionally breaking off to snatch pages of script from the artist, who is sitting in the front row. At one point he drops the script and exits, banging the fire door behind him. The theatre audience (and we, the cinema audience) sit there waiting uncertainly for what seems like minutes, before he finally returns and finishes the performance, with a final moving revelation about the family tragedy that preceded him coming here.
I find Dillane a compelling presence onstage and onscreen: in fact I can’t imagine anyone else pulling off a similar double-act. Watching him endlessly pacing, circling and weaving like a prisoner, I’m reminded of Rilke’s great poem about the panther: ‘His gaze has become so tired from going over and over/ The bars of his cage that he sees nothing more. / It seems to him as if there were a thousand bars; / And beyond those thousand bars, no world.’


Humph’s third and final Postcard from Berlin will be posted next week.

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