Saturday, 16 February 2019

Postcard from Perth Festival 2

Dimitris Papaioannou, The Great Tamer

As has often been noted, the Greek experimental theatre director Dimitris Papaioannou began his professional life as a visual artist. As such he belongs to the tradition of theatre that is oriented more towards showing than saying (in Greek, theatron means ‘a place for seeing’). As such, language or narrative play a relatively minor (or perhaps rather hidden or buried) role in In The Great Tamer. According to Papaioannou, the work was partly inspired by news reports of the mysterious disappearance of a boy who was bullied at University and later found dead by a river, ‘but whether it was murder or suicide no one knew’. Pappaiannou says the story left him ‘with emotions I didn’t know what to do with’. As such, The Great Tamer can be seen as a dream-like attempt to process an unassimilable trauma – one in which images and free association supplant the role of words or logic. 

Papaioannou studied painting under the major Greek artists Yannis Tsarouchis and later Dimitris Mitaras. A quick glance at the work of the former reveals the influence of Matisse in terms of colour and vitality, and many of his canvases portray strong but vulnerable men; Mitaras seems to have followed more in the footsteps of Picasso, focussing more on female nudes, and shifting in style from realism to abstraction. Both men also designed sets and costumes for the theatre: Tsarouchis in particular created a memorable costume for Maria Callas in Medea, and famously staged an adaptation of The Trojan Women in an Athens parking lot. Pappaioannou thus shares with his mentors a fascination with theatre and the body, as well as a Matisse-like celebration of life, shadowed by a Picasso-like preoccupation with sex and death. 

In terms of his own professional trajectory, Pappaioannou shifted focus in the 80s and 90s from painting to illustrations, comics and magazines with countercultural and gay themes (which were somewhat taboo in Greece at the time). Meanwhile he was also taking an interest in theatre and dance, attending seminars on Butoh at La MaMa in New York and working as an assistant to Robert Wilson. In 1986 he founded the underground performance company Edafos Dance Theatre in Athens, whose productions included The Last Song of Richard Strauss, MedeaA Moment’s Silence (the first play in Greece to deal openly with AIDS) and an Oresteiaat Epidavros with music by Xenakis. Most famously he was Artistic Director of the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the Olympic Games in Athens in 2004; works since then include (which dealt with homosexuality and masculinity) and Still Life (Sydney Festival 2017) which focussed on the myth of Sisyphus and saw Papaioannou increasingly using simplicity, absurdity, repetition, illusion, body parts, slowness and silence – all of which feature heavily in The Great Tamer. In 2018 he was the first person to create a new work for Tanzteater Wuppertal since the death of Pina Bausch (New Piece 1: Since She).

Art and mythology, life and death, men and women, sexuality and corporeality, materiality and the search for meaning – these are Papaioannou’s themes and motifs. According to him, the title of The Great Tamerrefers to Time (which Homer in The Iliad called ‘the all-tamer’); perhaps it’s also worth noting that the Greek god of time Kronos (whom the Romans called Saturn and who is also associated with agriculture and the cycle of the seasons) castrated his father with a scythe and threw his genitals into the sea, instigating and presiding over a mythical Golden Age, and devouring his own children until he was in turn overthrown by his son, Zeus (Saturn is also associated with melancholy and was slowest-moving planet known in the ancient world). Time, the seasons, agriculture, castration, infanticide, melancholy, slowness – these then form a cluster of sub-themes that permeate The Great Tamer; other Greek classical figures invoked include the Goddess Demeter, Narcissus, Tiresias and the hermaphrodite creatures described by Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium.

These references to classical mythology are however heavily mediated by images from Renaissance and post-Renaissance painters such as Mantegna, Da Vinci, Caravaggio, de Ribera, Velasquez, Rembrandt and Goya – especially those ‘black paintings’ which make heavy use of tenebrism and in particular the heightened contrast between dark clothing and pale flesh. Such images are of course highly theatrical in terms of lighting but also because they also focus on the body – in particular the Christian (or post-Christian) ‘fallen’ body, especially the male body, and notably that of Christ himself. These images are in turn mediated by the influence of Surrealism, in particular the work of Duchamp, Magritte and Dalí (who of course also famously ‘painted time’, not to mention moustaches, skulls and women’s bodies – all of which feature also heavily in The Great Tamer). In short: the sensuous materiality of classical Greece is penetrated by the other-worldly spirituality of Judeo-Christianity, and beyond it, the philosophical and cultural materialism of modernity (there’s nothing ‘New Age’ or ‘post-materialist’ about The Great Tamer, and its references remain resolutely Western).

This venerable list of more or less overt mythological, art-historical and thematic references might sound a little creaky, or even like a rather tedious obligatory post-modern or post-dramatic roll-call – and indeed it’s not hard to situate Pappaioannou in a line of auteur performance-makers from Pina Bausch and Robert Wilson to Romeo Castellucci. In terms of literature, apart from surrealism, one thinks of T.S. Eliot (‘these fragments I have shored against my ruins’) and perhaps especially of Samuel Beckett; indeed there’s a Beckett-like minimalism and mood of absurdist black comedy that at times makes The Great Tamer resemble a kind of melancholy circus. 

What made the work distinctive for me was the honesty and vulnerability of the performers, the elegant simplicity of the staging, and the unforgettable beauty/comedy/sadness/horror of the images. There are ten performers, seven male and three female. The men’s costumes (designed by Aggelos Mendis) consist of black suits and shoes and white shirts; a few have moustaches and resemble Pappaioannou himself at various ages, and their demeanour is mostly calm and unhurried. The women likewise are all mostly simply dressed, but their physical and emotional journey is a little different from the men. There’s a great deal of nudity, exposure and illusionistic dismemberment and recombination of body parts; the influence of mythology, psychoanalysis and surrealism is clearly felt in the motif of ‘the body in pieces’ (including cross-gendered pieces). In general however I was struck by the difference in the way male and female bodies and forms were treated: the male bodies seemed more like erotic, pathetic or comic objects, while the female body seemed more like a façade concealing an enigmatic interior (Freud’s ‘dark continent’).

The set (designed by Tina Tzoka) consists of an undulating raised platform loosely covered with plywood slats painted black (the undersides of some are white) which can be shifted, raised, flipped over or climbed, stepped or fallen through by the performers (who also occasionally roll or leap off the back and disappear); beneath is presumably an invisible grid-frame support with a network of holes. The only furniture consists of a few small stool-tables, which the performers occasionally sit or climb on. Lighting by Evina Vassilakopoulou is mostly in cool white tones and designed for maximum exposure of the stage and (and the morbid pallor of the performers’ flesh). Music consists primarily of slowed down and distorted fragments of Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz (adapted by Stephanos Droussiotis), which underscored the repetitive slowness of the action and had a sickly fin de siécle circus-effect; I was reminded of Karl Krauss’s joke about the dying days of the Hapsburg Empire that ‘the situation is hopeless but not serious’. I also couldn’t help thinking of Kubrick’s use of the same piece in 2001 at key moments of evolutionary and technological transition; and indeed there’s something of Kubrick’s post-humanism, coldness and visionary sweep in the show. This association was reinforced by the recurrent (and otherwise apparently anomalous) image of an astronaut slowly wandering the set and digging up earth, bones, body parts, artefacts and other human remains; the amplified sound of their breathing also recalled Kubrick’s film. In fact the theme of excavation, and the related actions of covering and uncovering, extracting and even eviscerating, are central motifs in the show.

On this surrealistic ‘operating table’ a series of unforgettable and artfully staged images, tableaux and ‘chance encounters’ take place. A man removes his clothes and lies down naked in the centre of the stage with his feet facing forward and genitals prominently displayed; another man enters and covers him with a white sheet; a third man enters and lifts, inverts and drops one of the pieces of plywood beside him so that the gust of air blows the sheet off the body; the sequence is repeated endlessly. The image references Mantegna’s Dead Christ, but also the figure of Lazarus (and more generally the theme of death and rebirth). Later the same man lies down again naked and feet-first but upstage right at an oblique angle; he is surrounded by black-clad performers who suddenly put on white ruffs and assume the tableau of Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson; a moment later they begin operating on him while he is still conscious, and then pulling out entrails and eating them, and then discarding organs and bones, in a monstrous parody of Goya’s ‘black’ painting of Saturn Devouring His Children (and other myths of sacrifice and cannibalism from the feast of Thyestes to the Last Supper). A woman with a bare torso is borne aloft by two men, each with one black trouser leg removed and one hairy leg exposed wearing a stiletto; the effect is at once comic, grotesque and erotic; one thinks of Surrealist juxtapositions like Magritte’s Rape, and mythological figures like the transgendered Tiresias or hybrid creatures like satyrs, centaurs and chimeras. Two naked performers (male and female) interlock bodies and slowly roll over each other across the stage like a wheel; one thinks of the torments of the damned in paintings by Heironymous Bosch, but also the mythological four-legged hermaphrodites in Plato’s Symposium. A man lies on his back on top of a stool-table and holds another man above him by the waist who mirrors him with the tips of their shoes touching; the image recalls the figure of Narcissus (who is also invoked later by a man leaning over a pool of dark water in a gap between the slats, in an image that also clearly references Caravaggio). A marvellous hail of golden darts flies through the air and lodges in the floor (while a performer shelters under one of the raised boards) to became a field of corn or wheat; a seated female figure in a robe with a basket sits beside them, like the goddess Demeter; and we think of the cycle of the seasons, sowing and reaping, life and death. Towards the end of the show, a man sits crouched over an ancient open book beside a skull, like Caravaggio’s Saint Jerome - or Pappaioannou himself, meditating over the relics of his own memento mori. (A friend and I went up after the show to inspect the book at close range: the open pages were meticulously reproduced and aged copies of pages from Leonardo’s notebooks with their tell-tale mirror-reversed handwriting, including a drawing of a foetus in the womb – again reminding me of the closing shot of 2001.)

For me however the most indelible image in the show was that of a man leaning over a prostrate naked woman with a covered face and repeatedly reaching out as if to insert his hand into her torso, while she arched her back and crawled backwards away from him, her face distorted in agony. The gesture was repeated endlessly, and each time I expected him (in part because of the earlier Anatomy Lessonscene, in part because the gesture involved his upstage hand) to actually pull something out. Once again of course the scene references images from myth, religion and surrealism, but I also found it a disturbing reflection on sexuality and objectification, in part because of the complicity of the staging, which (as elsewhere in the show) involved the artful use of space and expectations; Pappaioannou is a magician in his capacity to direct (or misdirect) our gaze.

As with all images, to describe these is scarcely to do justice to their power. They are obviously meant to arouse cultural and personal associations in us, but also to speak for themselves, in their own silent language. In fact there are no words in this show, apart from the odd outburst of collective muttering; but a hidden scaffold of language and narrative underlies the imagery, much like the hidden framework that underlies the set. The impact of the work also continues to expand and reverberate like a slow-motion depth-charge long after seeing it.

In sum: The Great Tamer is one of those unique Festival works that will be talked about for years to come, especially by artists and performers. It’s perhaps something of an anomaly in terms of Perth Festival Artistic Director Wendy Martin’s typical programming in its lack of overt ‘community’ focus or involvement – but then again, artists and performers are an important community too. Sadly it also represents a level of work that’s unlikely to be achieved in Australia under current conditions because of the long-term investment involved in a singular artist, work or – crucially – ensemble of performers.

Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Postcard from Perth Festival 2019

 Nouveau Cirque de Vietnam, Lang Toi; Gideon Obarzanek, One Infinity

Lang Toi: My Village is a contemporary circus work about traditional Vietnamese village life created and directed by Vietnamese juggler Tuan Le in collaboration with French-born but Vietnam-raised brothers and co-creators Nguyen Nhat Ly (who is also Musical Director) and Nguyen Lân Maurice (Artistic Director) together with choreographer Nguyen Tan Loc and a troupe of fifteen Vietnamese acrobats and four musicians (some of the acrobats also sing or play instruments). All three co-creators and the show itself have a hybrid artistic and cultural background: Tuan Le had previously performed with various European companies including Cirque de Soleil; Nguyen Nhat Ly received his musical education in Paris and has worked in traditional and ethnic music, education and research; his brother Maurice trained at the National Circus School in Hanoi and performed with Paris-based Cirque de Plume before becoming director of circus school Arc en Cirque in the French town of Chambéry; the show itself had its genesis in a masterclass at the National Circus School in Hanoi; and the Nouveau Cirque du Vietnam now has permanent homes in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Hoi An. 

In short: Lang Toi is a fascinating mix of high-end European so-called ‘New Circus’ (of which Cirque de Soleil is probably the most famous and commercially successful example) and traditional Vietnamese elements and materials. In fact this use of ‘ethnic’ content and forms of expression (including personnel, instruments, techniques and themes) is fairly typical of the genre (and a symptom of globalisation generally); what saves the work (at least in part) from accusations of cultural appropriation or neo-colonialism is the presence of the Vietnamese performers, who unfailingly transmit an air of unfeigned joy and passion in their work (though one can’t help feeling that the representation of village life has been somewhat de-historicized and sanitised in the process).

The most striking aspect of the work for me (albeit one also typical of ‘New Circus’) is the continuous flow of action (in contrast to the discrete series of ‘acts’ typical of traditional circus). The program refers to this as ‘storytelling’ but to me the through-composed nature of the work was (thankfully) more musical or choreographic than narrative in terms of its principles of development, and the form of visual representation had more in common with genre-painting than narrative – collective scenes of village life like Brueghel’s ‘Children’s Games’ came to mind. In fact the work is above all image-based, and could be described as a work of visual theatre as much as circus; though spoken language is used on occasion, it’s mostly in the form of briefly uttered speech acts such as greetings, commands, suggestions, protests or words of encouragement (all of which tellingly remains untranslated) rather than dialogue providing narrative information about characters, setting or events.

Despite some astonishing displays of skill, the prevailing physical and emotional tone is gentle and even intimate rather than being emphatic or spectacular, perhaps in keeping with aspects of Vietnamese culture but also certain traditions in French art and music. Lang Toi could even be called a work of Impressionist circus or theatre, with a nod to the influence of East and South-East Asian culture on late nineteenth-century French art and music (ironically in part as a consequence of French colonialism). In particular, this effect of Impressionism applies to the extremely subtle transitions from one action or image to the next; in fact one could almost say that the entire work is in a continuous state of transition.

Bamboo provides the principle material support for the entire work: set, props, musical instruments and possibly even the fabric of the simple and softly coloured costumes. Central to the design is a collection of bamboo poles of varying height and thickness which are tossed, juggled, used as climbing poles, balanced on, stepped across and joined together in various ways to form swings, trapezes and high wires. They also form the basis for various images of village life: tent-like structures, climbing-trees and (memorably) an acrobat manoeuvring an invisible boat with a bamboo pole across an undulating surface of bamboo poles. Once again, the transformational and imaginative use of minimal set and props is a common feature of New Circus; it also reminded me of Western (and particularly French or French-inspired) physical and image-based theatre companies such as Théâtre du Soleil, Complicité and the work of Peter Brook at the Bouffes du Nord.

In sum, I found Lang Toi an exquisitely realised work, but one which raised artistic and political questions for me about the complexities of history and culture. In particular I couldn’t help reflecting on the legacy of colonisation and war as well as current political, social and environmental realities in Vietnam – issues which were largely conspicuous by their absence. To be sure, this is to be expected in what is essentially a high-end work of popular entertainment by a company somewhat problematically described in the Festival program as ‘Vietnam’s most recognisable cultural export’. In fact there was only one moment of turbulence in the show, when yet another harmonious image of village life was disrupted by an outburst of music and lighting, a scattering of the performers and set and the appearance of a dishevelled woman screaming as if traumatised or possessed. Once again it remained ‘generic’, and had no lasting consequences, much like the brief storm in Beethoven’s 'Pastoral' Symphony. Nevertheless for me it was a reminder that all is not sweetness and light in the village.


One Infinity is a Festival co-commission that began as a musical collaboration between recorder virtuoso Genevieve Lacey and guxin (a kind of traditional Chinese zither) master Wang Pang and his ensemble Jun Tian Fang. The musicians were then joined by UK electronic/ambient co-composer Max de Wardener; finally director and choreographer Gideon Obarzanek staged the work with dancers from Beijing Dance Theater and Dancenorth Australia, associate choreographer (and Dancenorth Associate Artistic Director) Amber Haines, lighting designer Damien Cooper, sound designer Jim Atkins, costume designer Harriet Oxley and a set co-designed by Obarzanek and Cooper.

The Chinese title of the work apparently translates as ‘beginning/no border’, and the program notes from Lacey, Wang Peng and Obzarnek share artistic, cultural and philosophical themes of collaboration and communion. Lacey has a longstanding interest in Western Early Music (which is of course deeply connected with religion and spirituality); Wang Peng has an almost mystical view of art and culture as unifying forces; and Obarzanek’s work has increasingly focused on artistic and cultural collaboration, as well as the relationship between dancers and non-dancers, performers and audiences, performance and ritual.

The work is staged in traverse, with a central runway covered by highly reflective black tarquette that resembles dark water or Chinese lacquer-ware – especially under the glow of Cooper’s exquisite lighting. The musicians are seated on the floor, with the dancers initially seated unobtrusively amongst the audience down the centre of both seating banks (Chinese on one side, Australians on the other), with a single dancer (likewise Chinese and Australian) seated at the top of each seating bank and framed by a kind of box like a figure in a shrine. At the start of the show, Obarzanek (and a Chinese translator) inform the audience that at certain moments during the show we are to copy the movements of the figure at the top of the seating bank opposite us, and a brief practice demonstration follows; the movements mostly involve arm or hand movements, and occasionally standing or sitting, and are reminiscent of birds or butterfly wings, or the multiple arms of gods.

Musically the work was introduced by a recorder solo from Lacey and followed by a series of classical solo, duet and ensemble works for guxin interspersed with further solos from Lacey and a Chinese bamboo flute player (whose first almost toneless breath-playing solo was for me the most hypnotic moment in the show) as well as pre-recorded music and sound by De Wardener (including passages of organ and electronic noise) which played an increasingly dominant role in the latter half of the show. Lacey and Wang Peng are mesmerizing performers, and the liquid bird-like sound of the recorder complements the fragile delicacy of the guxin beautifully – the extreme quietness of the latter instrument (usually played unaccompanied) here amplified so that the sound of the player’s fingers against the strings made an even more visceral connection with the audience. I was less convinced by De Wardener’s music, particularly in the latter half, when it began to resemble the clanging electronic soundtrack of a sci-fi film (and sadly so much contemporary theatre) and for me clashed with the aesthetic of the rest of the work. As for the dancers: as well as leading the moments of audience participation, they created a series of slowly moving mandala-like shapes on the seating banks during some of the music pieces (which we observed either directly opposite us or by twisting around to look at them), before descending onto the floor and engaging in slightly more animated movement patterns for the final section of the work.    

The moments of audience participation were surprisingly effective both kinesthetically and visually – especially each time the lights came up on the opposite seating bank to reveal a wave of slowly moving arms and hands. These moments also made me reflect on the difference between contemplation and participation as forms of aesthetic experience. This was also a fascinating aspect of Obarzanek’s previous work with Dancenorth Attractor (seen at last year’s Perth Festival and reviewed here); the key difference being that in the latter case volunteer audience members (including this reviewer) joined the dancers onstage and received instructions via headphones, whereas here the entire audience remained on the seating banks and mirrored the movements of their dancer-instructors, so that the visceral thrill of joining the dance (or watching us do so) was replaced by the more meditative pleasure of performing (or contemplating) mirror-movement.

As with Attractor, however, I found myself less engaged by the choreography of the dancers – particularly once they descended onto the floor, when dramaturgically the work seemed to implode. I also couldn’t help feeling that the strengths of the Dancenorth dancers were somewhat under-utilized – and/or perhaps somewhat mismatched with their seemingly less skilled or less autonomous Beijing Dance Theatre counterparts. I was also unsure about the costumes – particularly the more softly coloured and loosely flowing ‘Asian’ costumes of the Australians (as opposed to the more tightly fitting and brightly coloured ‘Western’ outfits worn by the Chinese dancers). Perhaps the contrast was a deliberately cross-cultural choice; if so, I wondered if it would have been more effective to see them all in similar street clothes (or even rehearsal clothes. 

For me the heart of this work was musical (in particular the exquisite work of Lacey, Wang Peng and the Jun Tian Ensemble), with the participation of the audience providing a fascinating and mostly effective physical counterpoint, supported by the lighting and set design; while the contributions of the dancers, choreography, costume and sound designs (as well as De Wardener’s music) were somewhat more equivocal. Ultimately (and perhaps ironically) One Infinity seems a less unified work than Lang Toi; nevertheless both are works of great beauty and virtuosity; and both raise interesting questions about the aesthetics and politics of collaboration.  

Thursday, 20 December 2018

Postcard from Minneapolis and NYC

Theatre and Race

Blackout Improv; Mixed Blood Theatre, Prescient Harbingers; Aleshea Harris, What to Send Up When It Goes Down; Jeremy O. Harris, Slave Play

Since I started visiting the US regularly one of my biggest lessons has come from encountering racial politics (and identity politics generally) in a much more up-front way than back home in Australia, where even the word ‘race’ is generally avoided (and the concept evaded) in favour of the less loaded term ‘culture’. This is even more the case with ‘colour’ (and even more specifically ‘Black’); skin colour just isn’t referred to comfortably in Australia at all, either literally or as a cultural category or designator of social class. 

Blackout Improv is a local Minneapolis comedy improvisation troupe of Black theatre actors, stand-up comedians, writers and musicians who mix comedy, social justice and arts access work in their performances, workshops and training. Since I’ve been here this winter I’ve seen three of their shows: a late-night spot at Pillsbury House Theatre, and two of their regular third-Monday-of-the-month shows at Mixed Blood Theatre.

Blackout is not like any other improv I’ve seen. The methodology is familiar enough: the audience volunteers topics – in the form of a word or phrase – either solicited verbally (as they were for the more abbreviated performance at Pillsbury House) or written down on scraps of paper and dropped into a hat before the show (as for the more structured evenings at Mixed Blood); these become the basis for group sketch-comedy improvisations, with individual members of the company dropping in and out or watching from the sidelines. However each sketch is preceded by a serious sit-down all-in discussion of the topic by the ensemble; and because of the identity of the performers (and at least some in the audience – who were diverse but mostly White at all three shows I attended) the content of the discussion and sketch (regardless of topic) tends to be informed by race. 

The performers are all dazzlingly skilled and in tune with each other, but what’s really exciting is the honesty with which hilarious and sometimes painful contradictions are exposed. For example, at Pillsbury House, someone yelled out ‘MeToo!’, which led to a fearless discussion (mostly by the female performers) about their feelings of rage and disempowerment at the way they felt white middle-class women had hijacked a conversation (and a phrase) that was originally started by (and been about) working-class women of colour. This led to an excruciatingly funny sketch involving a White middle-class woman trying to get her driver’s licence renewed in an increasingly awkward exchange with a Black male service-counter worker. An escalating competition ensued over which of them was more discriminated against on the basis of gender or race, while one of the other performers fluttered around her chanting softly ‘White fragility’, before they all finally started singing: ‘Shut the fuck up, Melissa!’ (or some other typically White middle-class name)  – which had me feeling simultaneously exhilarated and uncomfortable, as all good comedy should. 

Other memorable highlights included a hilarious take on the topic of religion, which had two performers admitting that they’d been raised by minister-parents, after which they embarked on a manic game-show-style improvised sermon-competition, complete with fake biblical quotations; an extended dive into the topic of sex education, which led to a series of fearlessly revealing anecdotes followed by an improvised high-school 'advanced' sex-education class; and a entire evening devoted to the theme of getting partnered (or ‘boo’d up’), which included a lot of self-mockery (also extended to some brave members of the audience) about Black dating rituals.

All in all, I found Blackout an exhilarating and addictive experience: funny, risky, unafraid to strike jarring notes and expose rough edges, and genuinely empowering for everyone onstage and in the audience, Black and White. 


Later that week I was back at Mixed Blood for Prescient Harbingers, a trilogy of recent plays by three Black male playwrights from outside Minneapolis that all in one way or another touched on racism and gun violence (or in one play, gun-violence in a predominantly White workplace). The trilogy was produced by Mixed Blood Artistic Director Jack Reuler with a shared design team (and some cast members) but three different directors, and all three plays were remounts: Gloria by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins was originally produced (and set) in New York; Hooded: or Being Black for Dummies by Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm was first staged in Washington DC (and set in Baltimore); and Hype Man: A Break Beat Play by Idris Goodwin was a guest production by Company One Theatre, Boston (and ‘set recently in a large American city’). 

I saw the plays on three separate nights; they were also performed as a marathon on weekends; but despite their shared themes and personnel the plays and productions were vastly different experiences. I found Hype Man (which I saw first) the weakest on all fronts. A somewhat schematically written and statically staged one-act work about a rap outfit divided by racial-political tensions in the wake of a police shooting, it was well-enough acted but suffered from the fact that the actors weren’t convincing as rap artists (apart from Rachel Cognata as the beat-maker, Peep One). This wasn’t such a problem during the long and somewhat dramatically inert recording-studio scenes, but became a glaring liability in the ‘live-gig’ sequences. (IMHO it’s almost always a mistake to make theatre about another art-form, except with crossover artists who are adept at both; Amadeus is an exception because it’s primarily about a mediocre artist, Salieri.)

Gloria was a much more sophisticated and fully realised play in three Acts with an interval between Acts One and Two. The action spanned two years and three locations, and revolved around a mass shooting at a New Yorker-style literary and cultural magazine workplace in New York City. The genius of the writing lay in the element of dramatic surprise and ‘post-suspense’ about who had survived the entirely unexpected (and shocking) onstage shooting that ended Act One. This level of uncertainty was heightened by the theatrical device of having the same actors reappear in Acts Two and Three playing different characters from the ones they had played in Act One who had been killed (or killed themselves). 

The staging was a little unimaginative and some performances suffered from a degree of caricature that possibly reflected some of the same actors’ work in the more appropriately cartoon-like Hooded (which I saw the following night). Personally I felt the subtlety and stealth of the writing in Gloria would have benefited from a more nuanced and underplayed overall acting style; this was notably achieved by William Thomas Hodgson, the sole Black actor in the show, who by doing the least made the most of his three relatively minor (and conspicuously lower-status) roles. 

I found the play a deceptively layered take on micro-aggression and exploitation – with some delicious reverse-ironies perpetrated at the audience’s expense about how the survivors of the shooting each sought to appropriate and profit from the experience in a ‘post-truth’ media age. As such it had a great deal to say about how everyone experiences and perpetrates violence and trauma (physical and emotional) in their own way – and sometimes even for their own benefit – in a kind of dis-informational ‘cycle of abuse’. It also showed how this takes place against a background of isolation and anomie, especially in a big, fast, individualistic and ruthlessly competitive city like New York.

Hooded was by far the most exciting and provocative of the three Harbinger plays and productions. Staged with considerable flair by Thomas W. Jones II and taking a more dynamic and abstract approach to the set and lighting (including the judicious use of silhouettes and projections), the writing and performance styles were also considerably more heightened than Hype Man or Gloria.

In a one-act series of jagged short scenes, the central relationship unfolded between a more socially ‘integrated’ and preppy young Black male high-school student Marquis (who has been adopted by a wealthy White family) – brilliantly played by William Thomas Hodgson in more neurotic and extraverted mode than his work in Gloria – and his more politically ‘woke’ and streetwise counterpart Tru (played in more relaxed form by Nathan Barlow). The two meet while being held in a police station following an incident in a park; Tru proceeds to ‘adopt’ Marquis and ‘re-train’ him in the art of ‘being Black’, particularly when it comes to picking up privileged White girls at his school. The relationship is paralleled in a hilarious sub-plot involving one of Marquis’s White male student ‘friends’ Hunter (a fabulous piece of clowning by Tom Reed, who played a nerdy and vindictive shooting-survivor in Gloria) who gets hold of Tru’s hand-written bible Being Black for Dummies and attempts to transform himself in order to achieve sexual success with his White girlfriend.

The show swung wildly between over-the-top comedy, grotesque satire (especially in the protracted scene when Hunter assumes his ‘Black’ persona and attempts to seduce his girlfriend) and the occasional (and for me slightly less successful) venture into mythic surrealism or tragic realism. Marquis’s elaborately staged dreams about Apollo and Dionysus (inspired by his precocious reading of Nietzsche) seemed like an unnecessary extension of his clearly archetypical relationship with Tru (which already resembled a Black version of Fight Club); and Hunter’s off-stage suicide seemed to come out of nowhere and felt neither convincing nor satisfying. Nevertheless, the final image of a terrified Marquis being cornered by an inept white cop with a gun was truly the stuff of nightmares – a nightmare that young Black men in America have to live with every day. 

Mostly I found Hooded an exhilarating work of ‘Black-comic’ (in both senses of the phrase) theatre probing the same vein as some of the best sketches in Blackout. One of the most disturbing moments came in the first scene, when Marquis takes Instagram selfies while in the police station, and shifts from planking poses to lying prone on the floor. When Tru asks what he’s doing, Marquis blithely replies that he’s ‘Trayvoning’ – a reference to the infamous 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin that inspired Black Lives Matter (the movement and the slogan itself). Whether or not this practice is real or fabricated, I found it a chilling indictment of the effect of social media on truth, ethics and politics, both within and beyond the Black community.


The following week I saw two even more incisive and formally adventurous works of Black theatre in New York City. What to Send Up When It Goes Down is a new off-Broadway play by Aleshea Harris directed by Whitney White for The Movement Theatre Company at the A.R.T. Theatre. More precisely, it’s not exactly a play, but what Harris in her program note describes as ‘a ritual’ created in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin and other shootings of Black people – as well as the racist response to those shootings, which has largely exonerated the killers and blamed the victims. 

Initially the title made me think I was going to see another work of political satire, until I learned that in America the phrase ‘send up’ refers to the act of sending up a prayer (rather than an act of mockery as the phrase generally implies in Australia). Indeed there’s a sacred quality to the ritualised action, language and staging of What to Send Up which reminds me of the role of religious discourse and practice in African-American (and indeed American) culture and politics. 

In more psychological terms, the work is an act of catharsis and even therapy for the playwright and the audience that transforms theatre into a forum for testimony, rage, grief, meditation and commemoration. It creates what Harris describes as ‘a space in the theatre that is unrepentantly for and about Black people’; as such, White people are not the show’s somewhat ironically designated ‘target audience', though they are invited to enter, witness and even participate – at least until the final section, when White audience members are asked to leave and gather in the foyer for a separate debrief while they wait for their Black companions. 

Before the performance began we all gathered in the foyer to contemplate an exhibition of hundreds of photos of Black victims of racialised violence covering every available wall surface. Among them I recognised the names of Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile and (something of a flashback) Rodney King; but it was a shock to see their faces, and countless others, including young children, teens and elders, in family snapshots and selfies. 

When we entered the theatre we were asked to form a circle and introduce ourselves by name; identify ourselves in response to a sequence of questions that mapped our relationship to racism and racialised violence; and articulate how we felt or hoped to feel by the end of the show. We listened to one of the performers read out a brief biography of one of the victims and then collectively repeated her name once for each year of her life; the sequence terminated at seven. Finally we emitted a collective shout or scream in response to what we had heard so far. 

We then dispersed to the three-sided seating banks and the performance proper began. Four female and three male performers (a fourth was unable to perform that night because of an undisclosed family tragedy) embarked on a sequence of songs, dances, chants, monologues and vignettes about enduring racism in multiple forms. The singing (led by one of the female performers, Denise Manning) was highly emotive, and the dancing and chanting tightly choreographed and accompanied by rhythmic body slapping. There was a recurring heightened second-person poetic monologue by one of the male performers (Beau Thom – for me the most striking performer of the night) that manically-obsessively listed ‘your’ feelings of anguish, despair and rage in response to ‘it’; and a recurring scenario involving a white liberal Southern woman called ‘Miss’ (played with sarcastic bravura by another male performer, Ugo Chukwu), her obsequious black driver (Thom again, in an excruciating caricature of a Jim Crow-era minstrel) and an increasingly furious maid called ‘Made’ (Rachel Christopher). Other memorable scenes included one involving two male friends, one of whom criticises the other for walking the way he does in White neighbourhoods and then demonstrates by mimicking him with a walk that appeared to be completely ‘neutral’; and a diatribe about a white female co-worker who claims not to ‘see colour’. The show escalated in energy and intensity, culminating in a literally scarifying revenge-monologue by ‘Made’ in which she fantasises about torturing a White oppressor by flaying them alive. By the end of the show (or in my case the point at which the White audience were asked to leave before the final stage in the ritual) several cast and many audience members were visibly struggling or in tears.

I was deeply shaken by the content and form of this work – especially its tactic of overtly and forcefully ‘seeing colour’. The atmosphere felt appropriately dangerous but at the same time ‘safe’, for the audience and the performers. I say this as a White audience-member; I have no knowledge of what occurred at the end of the ritual, but I imagine it involved some form of healing. I should add that ‘White critics’ were among those targeted at one point in the show – possibly a reference to one review I read which ironically warned readers not to go if they were afraid of being confronted (IMHO it’s never the job of a critic to anticipate how anyone else will react or to tell anyone not to see a show). 

Once again, however, I couldn't help noting the targeting of White women (as opposed to White men) in the show – and more specifically White liberal women; my two White female companions both said they had noticed the same thing. One suggested that it was a reaction to the much-touted fact (though the claim is somewhat questionable) that a majority of White women voted for Trump (at least in comparison with those who voted for Hillary Clinton); but I wondered how much misogyny might also play a role, in both the targeting and the election results – alongside a backlash across race, gender and class lines against liberalism generally. 


The most radical and provocative show I saw in New York was Slave Play by queer Black playwright Jeremy O. Harris, directed by Robert O. Hara at the New York Theatre Workshop. This time the title had me expecting a heavy night of period drama; in fact it’s a pun on the concept of domination and submission in the context of sexual ‘play’. Specifically, Harris explores the slippery (in every sense of the word) intertwining of racism and desire. As such, he penetrates (if you’ll forgive me extending the pun) more deeply than any of the works previously discussed (or indeed any play I can think of since Shakespeare’s Othello, with a brief nod to Genet) into the psychosocial mechanics of racism and sexual/gender-roles. 

Harris admits in an interview that he was partially inspired as a playwright by watching multi-screen online porn as a teenager; and the first Act of Slave Play plunges us into a montage of three couple-scenarios involving various permutations of race, gender, sexuality and sexual dominance/submission between slaves and masters (or mistresses). The scenarios all appear to take place on a pre-Civil War plantation, but are (at first puzzlingly) clumsy in terms of their performance and staging; they are also interrupted by incongruous bursts of the Rihanna/Drake song ‘Work’ which the characters seem to be aware of and respond to.

As with Gloria, it’s hard to write about what follows without spoiling the show, so skip to the end of this paragraph in the unlikely event that you’re in New York and are planning to see it. For those still reading: twenty minutes into the first Act, and with things hotting up in all three scenarios, one of the participants calls out a safe-word (‘Starbucks!’), and two white-coated female therapists enter from the auditorium. It soon becomes clear that the six characters we’ve been watching onstage are in fact three contemporary mixed-raced couples (two straight, one gay) participating in a five-day ‘Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy’ workshop in which they dress up as pre-Civil War Southern slave-owners and slaves, and act out sexual fantasies to address the Black partners’ sexual dysfunction (they have been diagnosed with 'anhedonia'), which is supposedly related to inter-generational trauma. A hilarious second Act ensues, in which the two well-meaning therapists clumsily guide the couples to unpack and share their feelings, with calamitous results for all of them (including the therapists, who are also an inter-racial gay female couple with relationship problems of their own). The White characters are exposed as loving but unwitting oppressors, and every bit as neurotic as their Black partners, who gradually come to realise how they’ve been oppressed. The mood accordingly shifts from comedy to pathos; and things becomes darker in the final Act, when one of the couples returns home, apparently on the brink of a break-up, and re-inhabit their antebellum fantasy-roles in a much more disturbing and ambiguous way; before the play pulls the rug out from under our feet once more in a devastating (and possibly liberating) final twist.

The deft, multi-layered writing is ably supported by superb performances from all eight actors that manage to be funny, touching, sexy and occasionally scary; astute direction; and a simple but spectacular set featuring a backdrop of modular mobile mirrors that (depending on positioning and lighting) reflect the audience, the characters (especially when positioned above them in the final Act) and (most hauntingly) a horizontal panel suspended above and behind the audience which depicts an avenue of trees leading to a classic Georgian plantation home. As such it evokes our own voyeuristic complicity in the onstage action as well as the history that precedes it and envelops us too. Above all, it intensifies the focus of the play on the mechanisms of desire. 

This focus makes Slave Play less about moral culpability or consciousness-raising than about the unconscious and structural determinants of racism, gender, sexuality and desire itself. Paradoxically, I found the brutal honesty of the play emotionally, artistically and politically liberating – as well as being surprisingly compassionate and even forgiving in its treatment of all the characters, however flawed: black and white, male and female, straight and gay, dominant and submissive alike. This breadth of vision is possible because of the play’s multiplicity of perspectives and inclusive cast, which in turn enables it to speak in a more inclusive and complex way to its audience. 

In fact I found myself wondering if the playwright’s queer perspective in some ways offered a more progressive – as well as theatrical – take on things than works driven by ‘straight’ anti-racist, feminist or even class-based identity politics, which can often get stuck in the (necessary) emotional stage of anger or even despair. Specifically, the use of masks, costumes, props and disguises, and more generally pretence and role-playing, has historically been both a possible and necessary strategy for survival in response to oppression on the basis of their sexuality (as well as a source of pleasure) among the queer community. Perhaps this has led to an understanding of performance – and the performative aspect of identity itself – which can help us all to negotiate our political, artistic and even domestic conflicts; trans, non-binary and gender-fluid thought and practice might also provide us with even more tools for thinking and doing things differently. If so, Slave Play might be the most Utopian work of theatre I’ve seen in a long time.

Monday, 3 December 2018

Postcard from Minneapolis

The Maddening Music of War

Minnesota State Opera, Silent Night; Lewis Milesone/Great River Film Orchestra, All Quiet on the Western Front; G.W. Pabst, Westfront 1918Kameradschaft; Rose Ensemble, Empire, Religion, War, Peace: Music from the 30 Years’ War

I arrived here in the Midwest just in time for the mid-term elections, closely followed by Remembrance Day weekend and the centenary of Armistice Day. The atmosphere was one of polarisation: international, national, regional, political, economic, social, cultural and along the usual battle-lines of race and gender. If anything this sense of division was even more marked after the elections, leaving the country starkly divided between White House and Congress, Senate and House, urban/suburban and rural electorates, progressive internationalism and reactionary nationalism  – divisions mirrored in rainy Paris by the respective speeches of the French and American presidents (not to mention the squaring off between America and China back in my home region at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Papua New Guinea).

The works I saw in my first two weeks here – and my response to them – were somewhat overshadowed by this sense of national and global confrontation.  

Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell’s Silent Night was originally commissioned and produced by Minnesota State Opera in 2011; the score subsequently won the Pulitzer Prize, and the work has since had dozens of productions in North America and Europe – including nine this season, perhaps not unsurprisingly in the centennial year of the Armistice. The original production was recently revived by the MSO at its home venue the Ordway Centre in Minneapolis; and it’s here that I saw it the week after Remembrance Day. 

Based on the screenplay for the 2005 French film Joyeuse Noël, the opera commemorates what is possibly the one incident in the First World War that almost everybody has heard of: namely, the brief spontaneous truce that broke out on Christmas Eve in 1914, when German, French and British troops laid down their weapons and celebrated Christmas together – only to resume obediently killing each other the next day on the outraged orders of their respective High Commands. I instinctively avoided seeing the film when it came out, but was prepared to give the opera a shot, if for no other reason than to hear composer Kevin Puts’s award-winning score. 

Sadly neither score nor libretto of Silent Night is remotely in the same league as other significant twentieth-century anti-war or anti-fascist musical offerings like Britten’s War Requiem, Tippet’s A Child of Our Time or even (more debatably) Gorecki's 'Symphony of Sorrowful Songs' – all of which notably use 'found' musical or textual material (the poetry of Wilfred Owen in the case of Britten, African-American spirituals in the case of Tippet, and Polish folk songs as well as an inscription on the wall of a Gestapo prison cell in the case of Gorecki) in order to anchor the works in an authenticity and immediacy of reference which also (especially in the case of Tippet) paradoxically enables them to transcend their contexts and speak to themes of atrocity and injustice across time and space with deeply felt horror and anger as well as sorrow and compassion. Of course because they were composed for churches or concert halls such works also have the advantage of eschewing any direct dramatic representation of their respective narrative content; as such they obey a kind of secular taboo on images by keeping the obscenity of that content properly off-stage while using music and words alone to stare relentlessly into the abyss.

In comparison with these precursors the failings of Silent Night are all the more conspicuous. Most perplexing is the almost perverse absence of any direct rendition of the actual Christmas carols sung by the German and Allied troops – not even including ‘Silent Night’ itself – which would have provided the obvious musical and dramaturgical germ for the entire opera. Possibly this decision was made in the interests of compositional integrity; however I could detect no other authentic original voice amidst the clamour. Instead the musical style of the work is a kind of melange of various national genres or references to ‘typical’ composers: Wagner, Debussy, Mahler, Elgar and a rather laboured pastiche of Mozart (or possibly Gluck) in the opening scene – which rather implausibly takes place in a German opera house in 1914 where a performance is interrupted and the leading tenor conscripted onstage (in front of his wife who is also the lead soprano) when perhaps the more merciful act would have been simply to shoot him on the spot and dispense with an increasingly superfluous romantic subplot. 

This ‘everything-but-the-kitchen sink’ stylistic approach pays obvious homage to the nationalities of the characters, whose musical and dramatic personalities in turn are little more than emblematic of their respective homelands. However it does so only at the cost of reducing both music and drama to one or at most two dimensions: national origin in the case of the music, with the schematic addition of military rank, social class and romantic or familial relationships in the case of the characters. As such the score suffers from a kind of academism and even historicism which borders on the musical equivalent of l’art pompier; indeed when the Scottish soldiers began singing in bad Highland accents I was seized with an urge to call the fire brigade immediately. At times I wondered if I was watching a Broadway musical with a title like Western Front Story– or perhaps a Hollywood remake of Joyeuse Noel.

As for the structure of Mark Campbell’s libretto, I couldn’t help suspecting that it had been all-too constrained by the screenplay on which it was based. The alarum bells went off in the opening scene, which introduced our two opera-singer romantic leads Nikolaus Sprink (tenor Myles Mykkanen) and Anna Sorensen (soprano Karin Wolverton), who both sang well enough (though I found Wolverton’s voice a little grating) but were scarcely needed as a musical or plot device, and about whose relationship or fate I could not have cared less, in comparison with the soldiers and officers who were surely the opera’s real subjects. 

Among the latter, the most convincingly written (and performed) both musically and dramatically in terms of subtlety and complexity were the German-Jewish Lieutenant Horstmayer (baritone Joshua Jeremiah) and the French Lieutenant Audebert (baritone Edward Parks), along with the Scottish Lieutenant Gordon (Christian Thurston – struggling manfully with his accent). All three in different ways convincingly navigated and expressed their ambivalence towards the war and their assigned task in it, and in the case of Horstmayer and Audebert were also given simple but touching backstories. 

Indeed for me the most effective and moving scenes in the opera occurred after interval in the Second Act: firstly when the three officers agreed to extend the truce on Christmas Day to bury their dead and exchanged amicable if halting (and comic) trilingual small-talk on the battlefield (the English surtitles lending additional irony to the exchange); and later when individual soldiers from the ensemble sang haunting extracts from letters home in their respective languages on Christmas Night. These scenes justified and made use of the material and its form as a multilingual opera, and both score and libretto (as well as the players of the Minnesota Opera Orchestra under Courtney Lewis’s sensitive conducting) rose splendidly to the occasion. They also provided moments of much-needed stillness and contemplation in the otherwise somewhat hectic direction and staging of Eric Simonson – as well as Francis O’Connor’s picturesque revolving set, which looked like an illustration from a children’s book or museum diorama, complete with dead trees and the ruined façade of a church that wobbled slightly whenever the revolve came to a standstill, and huge projected flags on scrims (in case we were in any doubt about the nations involved).

In sum: I couldn’t help feeling that the popularity of Silent Night had more to do with its mostly pre-modernist and user-friendly score, its Broadway-style libretto and staging, and its sentimental, slightly pious and falsely consoling message, than any actual achievements as a work of contemporary opera. Perhaps there’s something about the so-called ‘Great War’ itself – and more specifically the story of the Christmas Truce – that inspires a kind of Edwardian nostalgia for a mythical time at the close of the Age of Empire when everyone still knew their place and a certain chivalry still prevailed. Such nostalgia is especially evident in Anglophone countries (not least Australia, with its Anzac obsession); but it also informs the more resentful and reactionary forms of nationalism that led to the ensuing catastrophe of the Second World War – and which in various forms still plague us globally today.


Down the street from where I’m staying in the cosy inner suburb of Longfellow, the tiny local non-profit art-house Trylon Cinema commemorated Armistice Day weekend with two benefit screenings of the lesser-know silent version of Lewis Milestone’s 1930 epic All Quiet on the Western Front to raise money for Minnesota veterans, alongside two even more powerful and newly restored anti-war classics from 1930 and 1931 by the great Austrian theatre and film director G.W. Pabst: Westfront 1918 and Kameradschaft (Comradeship). All three packed far more punch than Silent Night – and in the case of All Quiet also included a far more effective use of live music. 

The film was originally released in two versions: the better-known talkie and a (somewhat re-edited and slightly shorter) so-called International Sound Version which included music and sound effects but removed the American-English spoken dialogue and replaced it with inter-titles for an international audience. The silent version is arguably superior both because of its tighter, more fluid and expressive editing (silent cinema being at the time a much more advanced art-form than talkies) and because it dispenses with the dialogue, much of which was lamely delivered by the actors and in any case sounded somewhat incongruous coming from the mouths of German soldiers and French civilians. 

The Trylon screenings however went one better by dispensing with the music and sound effects as well, and replacing these with a semi-improvised live accompaniment by The Great River Film Orchestra, comprising local Twin Cities musicians Keith Lee on baritone guitar, piano and autoharp (a kind of zither), Nathan Grumdahl on drums and synthesizer, and Matt Sowell on electric lap steel guitar and industrial equipment. 

The original soundtrack’s essentially pre-war, classical-romantic and alternately militaristic or elegiac orchestral style has an unfortunate tendency either to sentimentalise or even glorify war, much like the soundtracks of so many war and even anti-war movies since (a tendency that arguably extends to the score of Silent Night). Indeed this is arguably one reason for Truffaut’s paradoxical remark that he had never seen an anti-war film that didn’t end up being pro-war. The Great River Film Orchestra however treated us to a much more hand-held, expressionist and even contemporary industrial sound, which suited both the material and the medium. 

The result was like watching a horror film, the visceral impact of which was considerably increased by the music being performed live in semi-darkness in front of the screen, and largely improvised in response to the images projected there. This was especially the case during the remarkably staged and filmed battle and bombardment scenes, when the moaning chords of the autoharp and plangent howls of slide guitar mingled with the crash of cymbals and drums, and the machine–gun rattling of industrial junk percussion; but it was no less telling in the earlier scenes of jingoistic street parades and enthusiastic recruitment-sessions in school classrooms, which were more starkly underscored by ominously sustained piano-chords; as well as during the interludes of ceasefire, on furlough and in the hospital barracks, which were hauntingly accompanied by the slide guitar.

Despite some of the more predictable elements in the essentially generic content of All Quiet (which after all virtually invented the genres of both Hollywood war and protest-movies) I left the cinema much more shaken than I had been by Silent Night. The early recruiting scenes in particular (and their eerie musical accompaniment) had me immediately thinking about the bellicose nationalism and militarism currently being preached in the US, Russia, China and elsewhere around the world, and fearing lest history repeat itself with even more catastrophic consequences.


Although probably most famous for his silent Pandora’s Box with Louise Brooks (based on Wedekind’s Luluplays), G.W. Pabst came into his own in 1930–31 with a trio of great social-realist sound films: Westfront 1918, Kameradschaft and a controversial version of Brecht and Weil’s Threepenny Opera which was the subject of a lawsuit by the playwright and composer but made a movie star of Lotte Lenya. Certainly Pabst is a much more significant film-maker than Milestone, and German cinema was far more advanced than Hollywood in the early 1930s – and indeed arguably led the world in that art-form until the catastrophe of Nazism, from which (like Pabst himself) it never recovered, until the brief blazing flare of Fassbinder and rise of the New German Cinema in the 70s. 

Westfront tells a similar story to All Quiet – about the physical and mental impact of the war on a group of friends in the German army who are progressively disillusioned, wounded, maimed, killed or driven insane by the conflict – but it does so in a much bleaker and more horrifying way, and uses much more advanced techniques such as long complex overhead tracking shots through the trenches and the deliberate absence of visual perspective during the chaotic battle scenes. Certain images leave an indelible imprint: the death of one of the main characters in a shell-crater leaving only his hand sticking out of the mud; another driven mad and dragged from battle shouting ‘Hurrah!’ while saluting piles of corpses; and a final scene in a field hospital that seems to come straight out of a medieval vision of hell as depicted by Hieronymus Bosch – or perhaps an etching by Otto Dix, Pabst’s contemporary and fellow practitioner of the so-called ‘new objectivity’ in art that succeeded expressionism in the latter years of the Weimar Republic. The closing image of a blinded French soldier reaching out unwittingly to hold the hand of a German – who has just died and been covered by a sheet on the stretcher beside him – and murmuring ‘Comrades, not enemies!’ is both hopeful and hopeless at the same time (recalling Kafka’s saying that ‘there is hope, but not for us’) even as it evokes the title of Pabst’s next film, which is effectively a sequel to this one; yet even this image is followed by the closing title with its chilling question mark: ‘The End?’ (In this regard it’s worth remembering that Armistice Day is just that: the commemoration of a cessation of hostilities – albeit with onerous terms for the German side – rather than a formal surrender; an anomaly which contributed to the fact that ‘the War to End All Wars’ in a sense never ended – much like the American Civil War which is arguably still being waged by white supremacists to this day.)

The French-German co-production Kameradschaft more or less picks up where the previous film leaves off, but is even more technically sophisticated and perhaps ultimately more humanist in its narrative and vision. Set in a town on the French-German border in the immediate aftermath of the war, it tells the story of a group of German coal miners who risk their lives coming to the rescue of their French counterparts who are trapped in a neighbouring mine after a gas explosion. The film combines realism and expressionism even more effectively than Westfront 1918, and deliberately evokes imagery from the latter in scenes such as the terrifying domino-like collapse of the mine-supports (recalling a claustrophobic scene from the earlier film in which the German soldiers struggle to keep their trench-supports from collapsing during a bombardment) or –hauntingly – when an oxygen-starved French miner sees his German rescuers approaching him wearing gas-masks and has a flashback to the trenches, leading him to attack them in his delirium. Yet if the penultimate scene of Kameradschaft – in which a mass-meeting of survivors leads to expressions of solidarity from both sides – ‘We are not enemies, we are all workers!’ – is more optimistic and politically charged than anything in Westfront, it is nevertheless followed by the bleak image of French and German border guards re-installing the metal grille that separates the two nations even underground (and which the German miners had kicked asunder earlier in the film to reach their French counterparts). 

Unlike either the sound or silent versions of All Quiet, both Pabst films tellingly have no music at all in the soundtrack, other than the diegetic use of cabaret music with which the French villagers entertain the German troops in an early scene of Westfront – a scene paralleled in Kameradshaftwhen the German miners enter a local music-hall in the French part of town, and a misunderstanding leads to a fight when one of them is snubbed by a French woman. Pabst had a much more nuanced understanding of the role of music in theatre, cinema and politics – as well as the psychology of nationalism, war and conflict, and the socio-economic conditions that fuel them – than Milestone (let alone the composer and librettist of Silent Night). Artistically he had lived and worked as a theatre director and actor in New York before the War, and was interned in a French prisoner-of-war camp on his return to Europe, where he formed a theatre group inside the camp; politically he made no secret of his Marxist affiliations (at least until the Nazis took power), and later faced at first-hand the compromises imposed on him by both the Nazi and Hollywood regimes; so he had skin in the game when it came to the subject-matter he was drawn to as a film-maker throughout his career. 

As such, his films have a great deal to tell us about our contemporary situation, which in many ways alarmingly resembles the era of economic precarity and intensified nationalism that preceded and led to both World Wars.


From opera to silent film with live musical accompaniment to sound film with minimal music, I finished my ‘week of war’ with an experience of pure music (vocal and instrumental) by local Twin Cities early music group The Rose Ensemble, in collaboration with the Augsburg University Choir and early music ensemble Dark Horse Consort, performing a program of music entitled Empire, Religion, War, Peace: Music from Europe’s 30-Year Conflict, 1618–48

The concert was performed at three different churches; I saw it at the magnificent and recently restored neo-Romanesque Church of the Assumption in downtown Saint Paul – a Catholic church founded by German immigrants fleeing persecution poverty and persecution in search of a better life in the mid-19thCentury. So the performance had a visual component as well: one which, like the music itself, had a soaring beauty while also indirectly reminding us of its enduring religious (and sectarian) context and history.

The program included works by Bach’s great German precursor Schütz (who travelled to Italy where he was influenced by Gabrielli and Monteverdi) as well as other contemporary German composers who wrote work in response to the conflict – all of it in the service of their respectively Catholic or Protestant Princes and thus heavily partisan, but much of it of surpassing spiritual beauty or deeply rousing in a way that transcends the circumstances of its composition. 

The works were given glorious and passionate voice by the ensemble and choir, with outstanding work from tenor Bradley King, mezzo-soprano Alyssa Anderson, and the clear soprano of Kristina Boerger, who also conducted the Augsberg Choir. They were given delicately rich support by the Dark Horse Consort’s variously sized sackbuts (early trombones, more or less) and sweetly tuned cornettos (which are like curved wooden trumpets with finger-holes) – all resounding in the majestic acoustics of the church.

The performance was a timely reminder that 2018 is also the 400thanniversary of what was arguably the first ‘modern’ war in that it involved virtually all of Europe’s major powers; was at least ostensibly waged in the name of ideology (in this case religious) even if in fact largely driven by power-politics and fought by indistinguishable armies of mercenaries; and saw the death of over 8 million people – or about a sixth of the population of Europe, including over a third of the population of the German and Czech lands – either in battle or from violence, plague and starvation. 

Unlike the both World Wars however – or even the American Civil War – there are only written (and artistic) records of the conflict. This makes it a fascinating object for imaginative contemplation – as Brecht did with Mother Courage, which was based on the 17thCentury German writer Grimmelshausen, whose picaresque novel Simplicissimus fictionalised his own experiences in the war, but which Brecht used to hold a mirror up to the role of capitalism in the Second World War.

In this case the Rose Ensemble allowed us to close our eyes and imagine the war and its impact for ourselves, with the aid of a spoken narrative thread interspersed between the musical items, delivered at a lectern by individual members of the ensemble and drawn from contemporary personal accounts by Schütz himself as well as a Swabian cobbler-farmer Hans Heberle (who kept a diary during the war after seeing a comet and interpreting it as a sign of his mission to record what he saw) and the Polish-German poet Andreas Gryphius, who witnessed horrific atrocities against civilians and wrote about them with unsurpassed lyricism. As he wrote in his poem ‘Tears of the Fatherland’, which was read during the concert (in English translation): 

So, now we are destroyed; utterly; more than utterly!
The gang of shameless peoples, the maddening music of war,
The sword fat with blood, the thundering of the guns
Have consumed our sweat and toil, exhausted our reserves.
Towers are on fire, churches turned upside down;
The town hall is in ruins, the strong cut down, destroyed.
Young girls are raped; wherever we turn our gaze,
Fire, plague, and death pierce heart and spirit through.
Here, town and ramparts run with ever-fresh streams of blood.
It's three times six years now, since our mighty river's flow
Was blocked almost by corpses, just barely trickling through.

I found the cumulative experience of this concert – music, narration, architecture, the context of Armistice Day and our contemporary times of trouble – a deeply moving cause for reflection and culmination of the week's performance-going. As the German-Bohemian composer Andreas Hammerschmidt’s motet ‘Verleih uns Friede’ (‘grant us peace’) implored in the words of Martin Luther at the concert’s conclusion:

In your mercy grant us peace, 
Lord, in these our times.