The horror does not only take place in the theatre

The horror does not only take place in the theatre

Motionless, they lie and sit on a bed, in front of it, but also next to it on the stage floor. The room is white and seems sterile, except for a mess of journals and scraps of paper under the sleeping area. There are a total of seven young people who do not exchange a word with each other. While the audience is still looking for their seats, the young people remain motionless – until you finally realise that they are not people but life-size puppets. These are a trademark of the French-Austrian choreographer, artist and theatre director Gisèle Vienne. She studied puppetry at the École supérieure nationale des arts de la marionnette in Charleville-Mézières from 1996 to 1999 and used puppets as well as choreographic elements in her scenic works from the very beginning.

L’ÉTANG / DER TEICH was first performed at the Ruhrtriennale last year and had its Austrian premiere this year at the Wiener Festwochen. The play, based on a text by Robert Walser, as well as text passages by Vienne herself, was realised by the theatre-maker in a very idiosyncratic formal language. The two actresses, Adèle Haenel and Henrietta Wallberg, walk towards or away from each other – except for a few moments – in slow motion. Individual movements, such as lighting a cigarette, take what feels like eternities and produce a sense of time that people often experience in exceptional situations in which they are threatened. What lasts a few seconds in measured time stretches out indefinitely, while you know that bad things are happening at precisely these moments that you can no longer run away from.

It is precisely such moments that Vienne retells through Robert Walser’s characters. She transposes the story of Fritz, a teenager who pretends to drown himself so that his parents will finally take notice of him, into our present. Adèle Haenel slips into this role, but also into the roles of his sister and his brother. She does this in the same outfit, but with different voices. The fact that this change takes some getting used to at the beginning is intentional. It happens in a matter of seconds, especially when it comes to dialogue. But as the action progresses, one begins to better distinguish between the different characters. From her first appearance, Henrietta Wallberg gives the impression of being an extremely dominant mother whose parenting style largely involves beatings and harshness. The fact that she herself is a victim of violence in her marriage only becomes clear shortly before the end of the play.

The contemporary reference is not only achieved through the costumes (Gisèle Vienne, Camille Queval, Guillaume Dumont). In one scene it becomes clear that Fritz is getting high on drugs just so that “it will finally stop”. “It” is the abuse and corporal punishment to which he is subjected and against which he cannot defend himself. In addition, there is the poisoned climate between the siblings, who do not help each other, but rather each has to fight for his or her own place in the family.

A sophisticated lighting strategy (Yves Godin) constantly bathes the room in different colours. This – just like the slowing down of the movements and the background sound – has an almost hallucinogenic effect. This creates an illusion in which one is not sure whether what one sees is actually happening or whether it is rather traumatic memory fragments of Fritz. This is suggested by the last image, in which the mother – as at the beginning – enters the room in a threatening manner. The endless loop is opened, the horror to which Fritz is exposed seems to have no end.

The venue, the Jugendstiltheater am Steinhof, does the rest to further stimulate one’s own mental cinema. It is not only the memorial in front of the building that was erected for those children who were killed here in the area during the Nazi era. It is also the fact that one suddenly begins to suspect that only a few metres from the theatre there could be people who have to be treated here because of traumatic events in childhood and adolescence. The horror that is shown here on stage, it takes place in real life and spills out directly into the immediate environment. That it is not an individual fate that Fritz suffers is pointed out by the seven dolls, a fact that is only understood in retrospect. One after the other, they were carried from the stage to the offstage by a man in black leather gloves, completely emotionless. The lifting up of the lifeless bodies, as if they were heavy sacks, but also the black leather gloves, illustrate the power imbalance between the man and the young people.

Moments of disturbance, which repeatedly raise uncertainties in understanding what has just been shown, at the same time allow for highly empathetic moments of identification with Fritz. There is nothing in his world that he can hold on to, but much that deeply unbalances him.  Adèle Haenel’s intense acting and the fact that the youth ultimately descends into madness also contribute enormously to this.

L’ étang / the pond can be experienced on several levels. One can get involved with the piece exclusively emotionally and trace what the images, texts, music and sound do in oneself. But you can also analyse the scenes afterwards and come to the conclusion that something is being shown here that is not being talked about because such a thing “should not be”. Giséle Vienne succeeded in creating a work that is at the height of contemporary theatre aesthetics and impresses with intelligent direction and outstanding acting performances.

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At the breaking point between the old and the new

At the breaking point between the old and the new

Tubular steel chairs with plastic meshes are lined up in rows on the stage of Hall E in the MuseumsQuartier, as if waiting for an audience. On the right wall are massive, multi-armed lamp constructions, fitted with crystal chandeliers from the past 200 years. From the Biedermeier chandelier to a spherical design variant of our days, everything is represented. Like heavy fruit, they hang from artificial branches, but also draw attention to the fact that the rule on the Russian estate where Anton Chekhov’s “Cherry Orchard” takes place has lasted for several generations.

In the right background of the stage, a small group of people is gathered. It is the ensemble of director Tiago Rodrigues, who has gathered the actors and actresses from various European countries for his production of the Russian stage classic.  “It’s the first time I’ve chosen the ensemble to play very specific roles,” the future director of the Avignon Festival explained at the audience discussion following the premiere. In 2021, the premiere took place in Avignon, and the Wiener Festwochen is one of a total of ten other cooperation partners that will still show the play. The photos shown here are from the Avignon setting. However, the stage in the Museumsquartier had a completely different effect, not only in terms of lighting, but primarily because of the modern ambience. In his previous works, three of which have been presented at the Vienna Festival in recent years, the Portuguese director had developed the roles together with the ensemble. Originally, he wanted to see how he could deal with Chekhov, but it soon became clear to him that not a single sentence should be different from the way the writer had formulated them. “Everything is perfect about the text, it would be presumptuous to add or omit anything” – was his further comment.

Starting with his desired cast, the lady of the manor Lioubov, for whom he was able to win Isabelle Huppert, he formed a diverse team around her with some People of Colour. However, according to Rodrigues, this was not connected with any dramaturgical idea. However, he and the ensemble only realised during rehearsals that this opened up a special window of interpretation at a certain point.

The stage set by Fernando Ribeiro remains the same throughout the play, but is rearranged and moved around as time goes on. Soon the chairs are arranged into a large pile of chairs – symbolic of the changes taking place in the manor house, around which the beautiful cherry orchard is situated. In this play, Chekhov described the downfall of the feudal era with its serfdom and the emergence of a new system in which those with luck and ability can free themselves from poverty. This upheaval, which completely shifted the social system, is effectively made visible by Ribeiro. In the end, the large lamp constructs will no longer be placed along the right side of the stage, but along the left side, and there will no longer be a chair in its centre. The power that shifted from the political right to the left after the tsarist rule in Russia and at the same time the emptiness of a social order that first had to be filled – all this resonates grandly in this stage design.

At the beginning of the evening, however, Adama Diop introduces Chekhov’s play with a few words and briefly tells us about its genesis. He then brilliantly embodies the role of Lopakhine, the man whose parents and grandparents were still serfs on the Lioubov estate. Having become wealthy, it is he who will finally buy it at auction. The breaking of the “fourth wall” is not only noticeable at the beginning of the performance. Many of the monologues are addressed by the actors and actresses not to their personal counterparts but directly to the audience. Before the beginning of the fourth act, Diop does this again to note that the play could actually have ended at this point – after the estate was auctioned off. In fact, Chekhov added the last act later, because he did not want “Cherry Orchard” to be understood as a drama, but as a tragicomedy. Thus, after the great financial, but also psychological, crash that hit all the people who had been connected with the estate, he pacified the events with a farewell scene. Although the future of all those involved is uncertain, everyone nevertheless sets off in hope and scatters to the winds. Lioubov, who has to realise that the carefree time of spending money is over for her once and for all and that her parental home is lost, and the old servant Firs, who has lost his purpose in life, serving, and is now left behind alone, are the only ones who no longer have a glimmer of hope.

Tiago Rodrigues adds another monumental musical layer to the action, cleverly separating the individual scenes from each other and, in some cases, underscoring them. Manuela Azevedo and Hélder Gonçales rock not only the stage but the hall with a stage piano, drum sounds and an electric guitar, at the same time shifting the narrative into the present. The director places the characters sharply on the edge of a commedia dell’arte manner. When they are happy, they are out of control, jumping, leaping and cheering. Great gestures, but also strong, emotional moments, which Isabelle Huppert in particular knows how to contribute with bravura, characterise this play. It is fascinating to see how she manages to change in an instant from an overexcited, fun-loving woman to one deeply grieving for her son. This strongly felt emotion is immediately transmitted to the audience and at the same time makes it clear with what high acting skill Huppert is acting here.

She is matched by Marcel Bozonnet, who plays the old servant Firs. Dressed like Freddie Frinton as the servant in the world-famous dinner-for-one sketch and also acting with the latter’s clumsy habitus, he touches the audience from the first to the last performance. Adama Diop’s skin colour alone finally creates the turning point in the interpretation that allows the play to be seen from a completely new angle. Torn between rage and anger resulting from the history of his family and the new role as landowner, which he cannot yet really grasp, he experiences psychological ups and downs, which he is not really able to cope with. His furious justification of the purchase of the estate resonates enormously with the colonial brute force from whose after-effects most of the former European colonies are still suffering today.

This interpretive approach – even if it was not originally intended – cannot be disregarded in the critical examination of the production. It resonates strongly, brought about by our zeitgeist, in which art, above all, has an important contribution to make in coming to terms with these criminal, inhuman and exploitative events. It is well known that it is always the spectacles of the viewers themselves that contribute to judging events individually. However, the fact that diverse ensembles are still the exception in theatres in Austria strongly contributes to this view. If the way a play is viewed can be given a new twist simply by the colour of an actor’s skin, one may conclude how great the need is to catch up in terms of diversity on our stages.

Isabel Abreu, Tom Adjibi, Nadim Ahmed, Suzanne Aubert, Océane Caïraty, Alex Descas, David Geselson, Grégoire Monsaingeon as well as Alison Valence – without exception, they are all to be mentioned for the intense portrayal of their roles.

The adherence to Chekhov’s original text, the addition of a strong musical component, an ensemble in which each and every individual was more than convincing, and the fact that the social upheaval presented can easily be transferred to our times, distinguish this production as a very memorable one.

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