via the gut

jana perkovic: foreign affairs festival, berlin

300el x50el x30el, FC Bergman

300el x50el x30el, FC Bergman

300el x50el x30el, FC Bergman

FOREIGN AFFAIRS, A NEW FESTIVAL AMID THE BERLINER FESTSPIELE, STARTED THIS YEAR UNDER THE ARTISTIC LEADERSHIP OF FRIE LEYSEN, INITIATOR OF BRUSSELS’ KUNSTENFESTIVALDESARTES. IT WAS GREETED AS THE FIRST LARGE, INTERNATIONALLY ORIENTED FESTIVAL FOR THE CITY.

Even though German theatre is of high quality, it is less exposed to global winds than one might think and it has developed a culture, a way of doing. German stages set the bar for theatre globally, yes, but the eagerness with which the main stages have absorbed innovation has left no outsiders out in the cold to eventually gang up and invent renegade movements. The corollary, in simple and gentle terms, is that Foreign Affairs, despite intentions, was bold and inventive in the normal qualities of German ‘theatre theatre’—set design and philosophical narratives—but almost in equal measure poor in theatrical explorations that experimental performance has pursued over the past two decades: the audience-performer relationship, spatial and temporal poetics of performance, the nature of theatrical illusion. We sat and watched a lot of goings-on under the proscenium arch, so to speak.

rodrigo garcia, golgota picnic

Almost every production I saw suffered from triteness of stage imagery, as if the great wealth of experiment from the previous two decades has suddenly run dry, and left European theatre with a vast hope chest of increasingly tired pictures. The standout productions were heterogeneously so. Rodrigo Garcia’s Golgota Picnic was mid-1990s postmodern eclecticism in almost every aspect, and tiresomely so: a long text in a stage poem about the crucifixion of Christ delivered to a rotating spectacle of vaginas, hamburger buns, vomit, all readily recast by the wandering video camera. However, Garcia’s search for the imagery of crucifixion in Western art ended in a full-length performance of Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross. Annoyance and discontent could be palpably sensed in the audience, many of whom clearly did not know what to do with their eyes while the stage sat still. But this shift of focus from visual to auditory image of pain, demanding a recalibration of one’s attention and focus, was uncompromising, rewarding and, in a certain sense, courageous.

fc bergman, 300el x50el x30el

300el x50el x30el, FC Bergman

300el x50el x30el, FC Bergman

300el x50el x30el, FC Bergman

FC Bergman, an up-and-coming young Belgian theatre collective, presented probably the most satisfying work of the festival, 300el x50el x30el. The set is a realistic-looking clearing in a Nordic forest: a semicircle of huts, in the centre a waterhole, at it a seated man, behind him a forest. Right until the end, almost nothing happens on stage, only inside the huts, and we are confined to observing private dramas on the video screen appended above the stage.

There is a naïve, clumsy freshness to FC Bergman, who have clearly seen more television than theatre (one of the main aesthetic inspirations for 300el x50el x30el is clearly Scooby Doo). However, the steadily circling camera reveals an array of rather ordinarily imagined bourgeois troubles. Even when the images descend into surrealism, the purported critique does not surmount its own conservatism: the women are asexual, the men are uncontrollable in both violence and sexuality, the children are pure, and classical music stands for repression. And yet, the final 10 minutes of the production turn this set-up around, disarmingly, exhilaratingly and ultimately redeemingly. FC Bergman dispense with filmed representation for the raw catharsis of mass movement—the stage explodes in music and dancing—and deliver salvation for these pathetic petits bourgeois, not through a story, but through the gut.

fabian hinrich, die zeit schlägt dich tot

The most visually entertaining performance came in the form of Die Zeit schlägt dich tot (Time Beats You to Death) by Fabian Hinrichs, actor and regular collaborator with the Volksbuehne-based great director Rene Pollesch. Pollesch’s work dispenses with narrative and illusion in favour of theoretical discourses, simultaneously interrogating both philosophical ideas and theatrical illusion, and reconfiguring theatre as a place of social encounter, as an agora. Hinrichs authored his first one-man-show in a copy of Pollesch’s work, but without reaching the same philosophical depths or directorial heights. Still, throughout his somewhat trite essay on the impossibility of community or individuality in the city, many wonderful, Polleschian things happened: having to watch an exercise ball with ME written on it slowly deflate; a minute of silence, with Hinrichs on stage, peacefully reading a book; or being asked to tell our seating neighbour, “You look good.”

romeo castellucci, the four seasons restaurant

The Four Seasons. Romeo Castellucci

The Four Seasons. Romeo Castellucci

The Four Seasons. Romeo Castellucci

Romeo Castellucci’s The Four Seasons Restaurant closed the festival with a difficult attempt to dramatise the death of image and the self-annihilation of the artist. The title refers to Mark Rothko’s controversial withdrawal from a commission for paintings for the Four Seasons, a luxurious New York restaurant. Castellucci attempts to go beyond image by opening in complete darkness, submerging us in the deep, bone-crushing murmur of a black hole (digitalised by NASA) and finishing with a swarmy, chaotic picture of…the same? In between, a flock of Amish-looking women cut their tongues out and then perform Hölderlin’s dramatic poem about the suicide of Empedocles (another self-silencing hero). The poem’s terrifically heightened language is matched by the women’s terrifically static poses: they continuously form classical tableaux, many recognisable from classical paintings—it is as if the history of art flashed before one’s eyes. Their voices are gradually replaced by a recording, their lip-sync gradually worsens.

Whether or not this two-halved production succeeds in portraying the tragedy of self-abnegation, or is too didactic and aestheticising, remains an open question for more than one critic. However, I was mesmerised by the (possibly unconscious) way in which Castellucci’s production mirrored Vegard Vinge’s John Gabriel Borkman (RT110). Entire scenes, through their employment of heightened slowness, of repetition, of overdubbing, of mass nudity, of extreme artificiality of representation, could have been direct high-art parodies of the splatterpunk Borkman.

More than any other, this production revealed a sense of humour in Castellucci’s poetics. But it also brought the entire festival to a satisfactory conclusion. There was no need for Castellucci to declare the death of image: Foreign Affairs was already, in its visual repetitiveness, a requiem to the stage image of a certain declamatory, distant, representational kind. Through Castellucci’s drawing and quartering of his own approach, what emerged was less Sturm und Drang, NASA sounds and swarms, than a new way of making theatrical realism: layered, ironic, dense, funny, visceral, deeply fascinated by abjection and already alive in the work of the younger generation. If only they had been invited to Foreign Affairs.

Foreign Affairs: Gólgota Picnic, author Rodrigo Garcia, Oct 16-17; FC Bergman 300elx50elx30el, Oct 9-10; Fabian Hinrichs, Die Zeit schlägt dich tot, Oct 20-22; The Four Seasons Restaurant, direction, design, costumes Romeo Castellucci, Oct 25-26; Haus der Berliner Festspiele, Berlin, Sept 28-Oct 26

RealTime issue #112 Dec-Jan 2012 pg. 17

© Jana Perkovic; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

11 December 2012