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Posts Tagged ‘Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz’

Thomas Ostermeier’s staging of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler for the Schaubühne updates the plot to our days and shows the Tesman’s house as a posh town house with a Ligne Roset couch and stylish French windows to the garden. Jan Pappelbaum’s sets are indeed beautiful and intelligent – on a revolving stage we can see either the living room from the garden or the garden from the living room plus some sort of hall to the interior of the house. The French windows are almost always wet with raindrops, images are projected on the concrete wall separating hall and living room for the changes of act (the play is performed without intermissions) and a huge inclined mirror above allows the audience to see the whole stage at the same time.

 In order to fit the concept, the dramaturg found it convenient to adapt the text not only to include references to computers, AIDS or cell phones, but also a great deal of internal trimming or re-ordering of dialogues and scenes have been done. Not to mention that some lines were just altered to fit the concept. For example, the last dialogue is originally written:

(A shot. The three rise to their feet.)

TESMAN – Oh, my God – what is she –

(Runs in, open curtains. Mrs. Elvsted follows. Scream, confusion. Berte enters through the dining room door.)

TESMAN – Shot herself! In the temple!

BRACK – God – people – people don’t do things like that.

 [quoted from Nicholas Rudall’s translation]

 But was performed this evening as:

 (A shot. All look towards the hall.)

TESMAN – Here she goes again with her pistols…

(All smile and resume what they were doing).

TESMAN, wrily – Maybe she shot herself this time!

(All laugh).

BRACK, still laughing – That would be a nasty thing to do!

 When a dramaturg is able to change the concept of a scene by finding a second layer of meaning in the original lines, that is often illuminating, but when one just cuts what does not fit or alters that to fit the concept, then there is nothing to praise in that. I would even add that the audience should be previously warned that they are supposed to see an adaptation.

 In any case, even if I do not like the dramaturgie, Ostermeier’s stage direction is often very perceptive and sensitive. It is hard to say who is to blame for the loss of dramatic tension caused by the adaptation – the audience tended to see the play as a comedy and the amount of laughing did not decline even when the tragic events start to take pride of place in the plot. For example, a key scene – Hedda burning Lovborg’s manuscript – here was reduced to crazy comedy, no reference was made to Thea’s hair because, in this production, she just has it short (why?!). Those who have seen this scene done for real with a great actress (as I have with Cate Blanchett at the Brooklyn Academy of Music) know how unpleasant and almost disgusting it can be.

 The loss of increasing tension involve a second casualty – the sense that Hedda is increasingly being confined and deprived of freedom and becoming more and more manic to the point of committing suicide is entirely lost. Although we are made to see Hedda covered in blood, one almost expects her to get up and laugh of everyone’s surprise with yet another practical joke of hers.

 What makes it all more regrettable is that a truly excellent cast has been gathered here. It takes some time to get used to Katharina Schüttler’s Hedda, the kind of casting the French call contre-emploi. She looks 18 years old, what goes against the timeline in the story (unless we understand that her early relationship with Lovborg happened when she was 13), and is too short to look as formidable as everyone describes Hedda. However, her thorough understanding of the multiple levels of meaning in her lines make her seem more mature than she looks. She also has a great voice and is extremely charming. The scheming and seductive aspects of her character were ideally portrayed – only the desperation, the sense of being lost in one’s own labyrinth is rather muted. Maybe other director would steer her into the optimal point.

 On the other hand, Lars Eidinger was an ideal Tesman. In this production, the interesting decision of having a better-looking actor for Tesman (whereas the “leading man” role usually goes for Lovborg) proved to be particularly sensible. As performed by Eidinger, Tesman has a certain clumsy charm that makes us understand why Hedda would have married him at all. He is no genius, but there really should be something pleasant about him that explains why so many intelligent people put up with his second-rate standard. On the other hand, Kay Bartholomäus Schulze’s Lovborg is quite uncongenial – he also looks older than I am used to see (what makes sense considering his lifestyle). He is first seen as a boorish snob who even aggresses Thea in front of Hedda. After his falling from grace, he appears covered in blood and behaving like a teenager, what makes it difficult for us to see why anyone would want him to have a “beautiful” end or something like that.

 Annedore Bauer also offered an interesting approach to Thea, a role generally shown as awkward and quite irritating, but here rather quieter in her plainness and likable in her vulnerability. Last but not least, Jörg Hartmann is an ideal Brack – as in the Schaubühne’s production of A Streetcar named Desire, this actor seems to have a natural talent to making sense of whatever directorial choice.

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In Berlin, there is no streetcar called Desire, but there is a streetcar’s stop called Freiheit. I would not call Australian director Benedict Andrews’ approach to Tennessee Williams’s A streetcar named Desire free – in spite of a series of internal trimming in the original text, the story is told more or less as written. The problem lies rather in the apparently intentional disfigurement of a dramatic play into dark comedy.

 As portrayed here, Blanche Dubois is a repellent, vulgar trollop who sprays fragrance in her intimate parts. Of course, there is something beastly in the bottom of what Blanche is – but bringing this upfront goes against the whole Tennessee Williams’ aesthetics. In many of his plays, the leading character is a typical product of colonial areas (such as Louisianna) – the lady of the plantation house brought up with all kind of refinements against a backdrop of violence and abandon (in the moral sense of the word). These little ladies were made from the same raw material their slave-owner and warlord fathers and brothers, but a misstep into the wild side of their natures rarely had a happy ending – sort of butterflies caught in spiderwebs covered with filth, living relics of a pallid paradise of genteelness lost in the strong colours of real world. Therefore, showing Blanche in such an ungracious way not only makes her a manipulating hyprocrite, but also unbalance the play, since Stella, in comparison, seems to be a paragon of dignity and politeness (even if her costumes suggest rather a hooker). This misconception is a fatal blow to the whole purpose of the play – reduced to a cynical display of dialogues with double meaning with regular intervals of prop destruction, beercan throwing, disgust-provoking episodes with food etc.  

In any case, one must always acknowledge that this is a play tricky to update – the concept has some interesting ideas – such as beginning on the bare stage, with all sorts of equipment visible to the audience, including the street door, through which enters Blanche. Her presence brings a black curtain, behind which props disappear and from which they appear, generally to be placed in a revolving circle on the center. The speed with which this circle spins varied according to the scene – a solution particularly effective for the scene before the birthday “party”. However, most scenic devices and displays were self-conscious and did not seem to stem from an effort to highlight anything in the text, but rather the production’s own “cleverness”.

Fortunately, the Schaubühne company has a group of gifted actor who know how to invest the concept with spirit and keep interest going even when one disagrees with everything else.  It is difficult to say anything about Jule Böwe’s approach to Blanche – she is faithful to the directorial choices, plunges in the grotesque required from her and is not afraid of going larger than life. Although she looks younger than role as written by Tennessee Williams, maybe she could work from small paintbrush and produce a subtler Blanche in the right context if that were required from her. I do not know either if Lea Dräger is properly cast as Stella – she looks like a teenager and I am not sure if the character is that young. At first, I had the impression that Lars Eidinger was too “elegant” for Stanley Kowalski. Later he proved capable of the required violence – but somehow the blutness seemed always rather studied, as if the role were a bit distant from his nature and the good results were rather a result of technique than of natural attitude (what is praiseworthy nonetheless). Maybe because the direction let the role of Mitch unbothered, Jörg Hartmann had more opportunity to build something believable. The closing scene is the play’s most famous one and, due to a series of miscalculations, it did not work and maybe the perfunctory acting (or casting) for the doctor and nurse parts have something to do with that.

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