The horror does not only take place in the theatre

The horror does not only take place in the theatre

Michaela Preiner

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May 2022

Abuse of power begins in the family and it is passed on from there. With 'L'etang / Der Teich', Gisèle Vienne succeeded in creating a highly emotional adaptation of Robert Walser's play of the same name. It shows how children are emotionally at the mercy of their parents and how much they suffer when they are deprived of love.

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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