Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Postcard from Adelaide

Adelaide Festival 2017: Schaubühne Berlin Richard III, Barrie Kosky's Saul

As a friend and colleague remarked to me when we met up to see a show at the Adelaide Festival Centre on Saturday night, there’s something about the Festival here that feels more like a national (and even international) convergence of audiences and artists than any other festival in Australia. Perhaps Perth is just a little too far away for people from the eastern seaboard to make the journey; Melbourne feels a little too much like a festival-city all year-round; Sydney doesn’t need a festival in order to be a destination-city for work or pleasure; and Brisbane and the other smaller or more regionally-focused festivals are…well, just a little too small.

There’s also something about Adelaide itself – the size, the layout, the weather in March, the proximity of public space (especially the river and parklands) to the main venues, the bon vivant culture – that makes it an ideal setting for an arts festival. Whatever the reason, there’s a sense of the city coming together to celebrate itself and the arts – a sense, in short, of festivity – that makes it hard to resist joining in, if one has the means to do so.

I add the last qualification advisedly, as whenever I make it over here (which is almost invariably at Festival-time) I can’t help noticing the ‘other side’ of Adelaide – and perhaps of all cities with which one isn’t overly familiar: the sense of a massive social divide between the haves and have-nots. In Adelaide this is accompanied by an indefinable but sinister undertow, which is partly fed by urban mythology and partly by the city’s peculiar status as somewhere midway between miniature metropolis and large country town, with little in the way of a surviving industrial base to employ its (increasingly) non-working class. As such, it has something in common with Perth, now that the mining boom has come to an end and the ensuing recession is having a visible impact on the streets. As I walked the ravaged CBD en route from my comfortable digs in east Adelaide to the Festival venues and their mostly well-heeled patrons, I couldn’t help feeling a little haunted by some uncomfortable questions about who is invited to the feast, and who is left outside the door.

Nevertheless, arriving at my first destination, Her Majesty’s Theatre, to see the Schaubühne Berlin production of Richard III on the Friday night of the Festival’s opening weekend, I picked up on an extra air of excitement and expectation around this, the first under Neil Armfield and Rachel Healey’s tenure as joint artistic directors. There’s a sense of guiding artistic vision that recalls Barrie Kosky’s legendary Festival in 1996 (back in the days when it was still a biennial event, and all the more attractive as a pilgrimage because of that); along with perhaps a slightly broader mainstream appeal; and (most importantly for me) some irresistible theatre.

Thomas Ostermeier joined the artistic directorate of the Schaubühne Berlin in 1999, and since then the company has acquired a reputation as perhaps the most trend-setting theatre company in that most theatrically trend-setting of cities. As another theatre colleague of mine pointed out in the foyer, Richard III is the latest in a series of re-definitive re-stagings of the classic masterpieces of ‘bourgeois drama’ (Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov) by Ostermeier and others at the Schaubühne over the past fifteen years. Several of these have toured to Australia, including Ostermeier’s versions of A Doll’s House, Hedda Gabler, An Enemy of the People and Hamlet. The latter, like Richard, was translated and adapted by playwright and regular Ostermeier collaborator Marius von Mayenburg and featured Lars Eidinger in the title role.

I didn’t see Eidinger’s Hamlet, but from what I’ve heard his performance as the ‘mad’ Prince foreshadowed many aspects that characterise his version of Shakespeare’s crippled psychopathic King. Perhaps most notable is his use of extemporization – or perhaps a musical term like ‘decoration’ or ‘embellishment’ would be more exact. The Shakespeare text (in von Mayenburg’s German translation) is delivered as written (and translated back into English surtitles projected upstage) but is frequently interrupted by Eidinger, who repeats lines in English, or stops to read the surtitles in mock-astonishment, or breaks into an Eminem lyric, or delivers improvised one-liners, or even (at one point) leads the audience in a mocking chant of abuse directed at one of the other characters. He also moves freely (and at times seemingly on impulse) between the stage and the auditorium, exiting and entering not only through the wings but also the side-doors that lead to the foyer, or lurks in the semi-darkness around the outskirts of the seating, like a spider permanently lurking in the corners of the mind.

Eidinger has an animalistic physicality which, together with his powerful physique and anarchic stage persona, makes him resemble a rock-star as much as an actor. This is supported by the central feature of Jan Pappelbaum’s set design: a retractable microphone dangling from the ceiling, which Richard uses like an announcer in a boxing match whenever delivering a soliloquy or aside. Florence von Gerkan’s costume design for him similarly includes a boxer’s protective leather head-brace and boxer’s tape strapped across his knuckles, together with a padded hunch visibly strapped to his back and one outsized padded shoe to give him an exaggerated club-foot.

All this contributed to a thrilling sense of Richard’s theatricality, his punk-like disregard for propriety (stripping down to nudity in the Lady Anne wooing scene, and again in the later battle scenes), his confronting rapport with the audience, and his increasingly unpredictable and unhinged relationship with the other characters – and ultimately with himself. For Ostermeier’s (and von Mayenberg’s) version of the play is not so much a political study in tyranny, or even a psychological study in anti-social personality disorder, as it is a philosophical study in solipsism – the belief that the mind is the only reality, and the logical consequences that follow. It’s as if the production took its cue from Richard’s line in the precursor play to this one, Henry VI Part 3: ‘I am myself alone.’

German tradition has indeed long understood Shakespeare’s characters through the lense of Romantic irony as embodying the existential predicament of ‘absolute freedom’. As such, Eidinger’s Richard is more of a Dostoyevskian nihilist for whom ‘everything is permitted’ like Stavrogin or Ivan Karamazov than the familiar paranoid twentieth-century dictators to whom he is usually likened. This becomes more apparent in the second (and for me more revelatory) half of the show (which runs for two-and-a-half hours with no interval), when Richard assumes power only to find himself entering a kind of nightmare from which he can no longer awake, gradually becoming his own double and ultimately suicidal enemy. As such, he comes more and more to resemble Hamlet, who would count himself ‘a king of infinite space’ were it not that he has ‘bad dreams’.

As for his deformity (clearly a theatrical artifice rather than a realistic impediment), once he becomes king it is artificially constrained and corrected by a corset and neck-brace, as if the fulfilment of his wishes in the form of absolute power became the ultimate form of imprisonment within his own consciousness. Indeed there’s something both terrifying and pitiful about his transformation in Act IV when he dips his face in a bowl of whitewash and becomes his own death-mask before wooing Queen Elizabeth for her daughter’s hand; or lies on the table and moans like a child for ‘a horse…a horse…’ before hitching himself by the leg to the microphone cable and being hoisted up like a joint of meat on a butcher’s hook in the final image of the play.

Perhaps inevitably the rest of the cast and production seemed somewhat eclipsed by this central performance. Strong and complex secondary characters – particularly the women of the play – were given short shrift, almost as if they were more like emanations of Richard’s mind rather than fully-fledged characters in their own right. Jan Pappelbaum’s split-level set design – basically a rough façade with balcony, steep stairs and a fireman’s pole – kept the action circulating; Sebastian Dupouey’s video projections of silhouettes of birds in flight onto the façade between scenes reinforced the ambience of swirling dread; Erich Schneider’s lighting design was almost clinically cold (the most conspicuous light being the one installed in Richard’s microphone which sculpted his face with an eerie glow whenever he spoke); and Nils Ostendorf’s live downstage drumming (supplemented by an aggressive techno soundtrack) added to the sense of a perverse circus or nightclub act gone wrong. Special mention should be made of the grimly humorous use of Bunraku-style puppet-schoolboys as the two hapless Princes in the Tower – their puppet-corpses later delivered to a trussed-up King Richard in his neck-brace and corset looking more and more like a puppet himself.

In short: the whole production was an object-lesson in theatrical craft servicing a single-minded and rigorous artistic conception, and a central performance which felt like one of the handful I’ve seen in my life that in some sense re-defined for me not only the role in question but acting itself.

We don’t see (or make) work like this often enough in Australia. We should.


From one mad King to another: Barrie Kosky’s fully staged production of Handel’s oratorio Saul is probably the defining coup of Armfield and Healey’s program (all performances sold out within days of its announcement last year). Originally conceived and presented as a Glyndebourne Festival production in 2015, it’s here remounted in collaboration with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and the State Opera Chorus, and conducted by Melbourne Conservatorium-based early music specialist, keyboard performer and scholar Erin Helyard (who makes a spectacular stage appearance at one point on a miniature revolve while playing the organ like Handel himself – or indeed Barrie in one of his earlier theatre productions). The remount still features the British baritone Christopher Purves in the title role, along with (of course) the original costume and set design by Katrin Lea Tag, lighting design by Joachim Klein, and choreography by Otto Pichler, all regular collaborators with Barrie in his capacity as intendant at the Komische Oper in Berlin and elsewhere.

The rest of the cast includes a hauntingly voiced counter-tenor Christopher Lowrey as the future King David; stalwart tenor Adrian Strooper (a member of the Komische Oper ensemble) as Saul’s son (and David’s devoted friend) Jonathan; gilt-edged soprano Mary Bevan as Saul’s daughter Marab; thrilling Australian soprano Taryn Fiebig as her sister Michal (for me giving the standout musical-dramatic-comedic performance of the night); Australian tenor and cabaret artist Kanen Breen (in full artificial bare-breasted drag) as the Witch of Endor; and versatile tenor Stuart Jackson in the composite role of the High Priest, Saul’s herdsman Doeg, his cousin and commander-in-chief Abner, and the Amakelite messenger who brings David the news of Saul and Jonathan’s death in battle – all of which he encompassed in the guise of an impishly camp, Bacchic master-of-ceremonies.

Barrie is a master at staging deliciously and deliriously surreal extravaganzas which celebrate Eros in all its polymorphous possibilities; but his vision also provides apocalyptic glimpses of the chasm of catastrophe into which we fall when Dionysus is denied – or given full sway. If his Urtext is The Bacchae, then his horizon is the Holocaust. However he is also (as he calls himself in the program note) ‘an extravagant minimalist’, at least when it comes to the layout of the stage itself, which is generally open and uncluttered in terms of set or furniture, so as to allow for maximum focus on the bodies (and voices) of the performers. His special talent is for striking physical images and collective movement; in opera, this lends itself especially to the staging of the choruses. As such, he remains true to the German operatic tradition of Bewegungsregie (movement-direction) as practised by his precursor Walter Felsenstein (the founder of the Komische Oper).

Saul provides ample opportunity for his vision and stagecraft to exercise themselves because as an oratorio it lacks inherent physical or dramatic impetus. Instead it’s more like a series of magnificent musical numbers (and corresponding emotional states) without sufficient narrative or thematic connective tissue between them to constitute a satisfyingly continuous or internally coherent experience without some form of radical directorial intervention. In fact Handel’s operas suffer from a similar lack of dramaturgical flow, in comparison say with Mozart’s – though this arguably has as much to do with the librettos as it does with the music (Charles Jennens, the librettist of Saul, was no Da Ponte). Barrie’s theatrical and thematic preoccupations – which focus on the body as means of expression and subject-matter – therefore have plenty of space to inhabit and animate what would otherwise remain dramatically inert.

In fact the most striking feature of Barrie’s staging in Saul is the use of crowded tableaux vivants or ‘still lives’ – whether composed of brightly lit and costumed human bodies or the more traditional arrangements of food, flowers and domestic possessions which we associate with the period (and especially the art and architecture) of the Baroque from which the oratorio is drawn. These tableaux are arranged on and around two huge (literal) tables which, themselves inventively rearranged from one scene to the next, are the only stage-furniture in the show. They evoke an age of economic and material bounty (at least for the ruling classes), but also of religious and political reaction and absolutism, against which renewed social, artistic and intellectual impulses towards freedom were already striving (and can be heard in the music itself).

Barrie’s interest in the work however is less political or historical than psychological and archetypal. Saul’s ‘madness’ – much debated by Biblical scholars, theologians and psychologists even today – here becomes the divine punishment visited on one who resists or attempts to over-regulate his own (fundamentally sexual) impulses. This is not the madness of Nebuchadnezzar, which is a punishment for blasphemy and pride, or even of Lear, which has more to do with the abuses of power and injustice. It’s more closely related to the madness of Pentheus in The Bacchae – and in Barrie’s surreal imagination leads to a similar de-naturing (and eventual dismemberment). Saul’s aggressive envy toward David as a rival talent, warrior and future king is thus a twisted form of narcissistic sexual jealousy – in contrast with his son Jonathan, who loves David but is willing to share him with his sister Michal (unlike their sister Merab, who rejects David because of his inferior social class even more emphatically than her father does). As such, Saul becomes a perverse family saga which resembles Pasolini’s Teorema, with David as the angelic object of lust whose beauty destroys a dynasty.

The most striking image of all in this production occurs when Saul visits the Witch of Endor (here represented as a kind of Tiresias complete with ‘wrinkled dugs’ as Eliot describes him in The Waste Land) on an empty plain of black rubble, and suckles on his/her teat in order to summon up the ghost of the prophet Samuel within himself (the role is here sung by Saul himself as if in a form of demonic possession). The same empty black plain is then filled with the corpses of the Chorus of Israelites who have been slain in battle by the Philistines – among them the decapitated bodies of Saul and Jonathan, their heads sitting in the rubble beside them, in a direct echo of the severed head of Goliath which sat there in the rubble, illuminated by Joachim Klein’s Carravaggio-like lighting, as the opening image of the opera.

Purves is marvellous in the title role, vigorous and expressive in voice and action, and fully embraces Barrie’s highly physical interpretation of the role’s demands. In an interesting parallel with Eidinger’s Richard III, this ‘mad king’ also breaks out into extemporized speech during the opera while the other characters continue singing – underscoring the sense that madness also involves a kind of aesthetic ‘break in form’. Personally I didn’t feel this device worked as well as it did in Richard, possibly because it felt more like a gear-change into naturalism which seemed a little weak in comparison with the ritualised nature of the rest of the production, and the work itself. At times (particularly towards the end of the show) I also felt that perhaps there was a little too much Bewegung for Bewegungs sake, in comparison with the shattering moments of stillness when the mis-en-scene was at its most eloquent.

Musically and (for the most part) dramatically, though, this Saul was a triumph, and the audience responded accordingly when the curtain came down, even more than they did with Richard. Mad kings, psychopaths, narcissists…perhaps there was some recognition of the times we live in.

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