postcards from berlin #6 [essentialism & muchness]
MITLEID. GESCHICHTE DES MASCHINENGEWEHRS (r. rau) @ schaubühne
susie and i missed this in the winter and mostly we were drawn to the title. gotta give it milo rau, "COMPASSION. HISTORY OF THE MACHINE GUN" is pretty catchy.
i have an ambivalent relationship to minimalism. it frightens me in some sense because when a super lean show fails to grab the audience there's nothing else to hang on to. when it succeeds though, it's fucking brilliant, and all the more impressive because it takes huge courage and confidence. i thinking back in canada, daniel brooks' work is emblemmatic of confident and skillful leanness. being in his room for OEDIPUS was exciting and super challenging because all my instincts for thickness and muchness weren't so useful to what he was trying to tease out of the text, and i had to rework my thinking to be of use to him (good challenge).
rau's schaubühne show is essential a double-monologue. we first meet a young (20ish) performer from burundi who was adopted into a belgian family after her family was killed in the tutsi-hutu conflict. she tells us (in french) her personal history, very matter-of-fact, sweet but unsentimental, before we meet a middle aged swiss woman who stands at a podium in the middle of an apparently "third world" garbage pile and gives a lecture, about time spent visiting refugee camps in turkey and working for an NGO during the rwandan genocide. she speaks for over an hour while the belgian performer occasionally offers projected support material. mostly though, the video is just the swiss woman's face enlarged, like a long TED talk. her lecture is a brutal and unapologetic account of her privilege and prejudices as one of many white woman going to africa in the 90s to "do good." she leaves, and the young belgian woman tells a story about her experience of blackness in brussels, the european panic about cultural integration. she ends with a sound clip, she apologizes for its kitschiness, it's the sound of children playing in a park in an immigration-heavy district of brussels.
it's all brilliantly troubling. the show is extremely brave in not peddling to idealist lefty redemption narratives. (to encapsulate it's many layers of discourse this post would become really long so i'll spare y'all that). it lays two points of view side by side, and leaves it to us to analyze. it's disturbing on a subliminal level to reduce the burundian-belgian performer to simply providing a/v support when an older white woman talks, sometimes rambles, for an hour. she only gets the stage when the white woman is gone--and yet she's the one who is more settled and sure of herself and we ultimately want to align our perspective with her. the swiss performer is courageously appalling, and tremendously grounded.
it could have been horrifically boring. there were maybe about 10 beats per hour in the acting. the only event aside from talking is the best stage piss i've ever seen. other than that, we're watching two performers with microscopically precise thought articulation try to work out their viewpoint in the face of massively violent global conflicts. it's electric. all the more so because it's left to us (in this case the schaubühne's predominantly white-bourgeois-middle-aged audience) to identify our position somewhere between an experience we recognize but are horrified by, and one we don't recognize as our own but whose grounded maturity appeals to us. it takes massive bravery and skill to stand inside of that white woman's (semi-fictionalized, but hard to parse truth from fiction) perspective and not wink or ironize or apologize from within it. it takes bravery to stand in some sort of truthfully grounded optimistic naiveté, instead of the rage that would be so easy for the adopted belgian woman to channel. we buy both POVs.
i've been thinking since about my own instinct for muchness. i love the big, the baroque, the dizzingly colourful. i like high energy and fast pace. there was none of this. i wondered if i would have been tempted to use the video more extensively than replicating the white woman's face for most of it. but this would have been gimmicky i think. it was useful to be confronted with just her eyes as she spoke.
i wonder if i'm peddling to short attention spans, or in some way reacting to the growing irrelevance of theatre to the general canadian public. it could be an attempt to seduce my peers. is it then, an indication of insecurity on some level? or simply an aesthetic inclination?
thinking of daniel's work, and milo rau's, i think minimalist isn't quite right to describe what they're doing. maybe essentialist is more apt. and it's not that i'm not cautious of avoiding gimmickry--i try to make my aesthetic choices also essential, not extraneous, and there's an element of pleasure i want to play to. but after encounters with such beautifully distilled work that is nonetheless really complex and unsettling, there's a little question mark that gnaws gently at my guts--when is muchness a product of fear?
for more on the show click here.