postcards from berlin #21 [text work]
PHÄDRA (r. kimmig) @ deutsches theater
not much happens in racine’s phädra. or, as holger syme pointed out, this is more schiller’s phädra than anything. whosever it is, not much happens.
at least on the level of the physical. on the level of language, it’s a whole fucking apocalypse.
holger made the comment that it was mostly schiller’s before i saw the show and i wondered a bit about what that might mean but it didn’t take long to see that language is the primary dimension of this piece.
(schiller’s translation of racine’s play was the last thing he completed before he died).
it’s a play about utterances and oaths and curses and how there’s no going back once you’ve said something out loud. and before i’d even seen enough to put that together i was struck by the text work—i haven’t been seeing much verse over here or even much language-driven work so i really noticed it here.
schiller’s verse is dense but muscular; rhythmic, forceful. and the actors’ text work is pretty fucking incredible. the relationship between voice and body is clear, speaking costs or invigorates, the act of speaking changes internal tempos, with language as the primary surface of the play the language is coming from the performers’ guts the whole time. and yet, the thing never feels precious about the words; delivering text is more athletic than venerating.
in a lot of the text work i encounter in anglo theatre, the playwright and the words often get elevated to a level that no humble little actor could ever presume to be equal to. techniques primarily based on the idea of release can have the unwanted side effect of stripping the body of any engagement in an attempt to relax a pathway for channeling some sort of holy spirit—there’s a whole culture of getting out of the playwright’s way that disengages from the action of language, from muscularity, playfulness. somewhere in there, the focus gets put on generating nice long relaxed vowels, thinking about melody and rhythm before argument, and the whole process of speaking text can become akin to conducting a séance and waiting for the spirit of the dead playwright to come and take over.
of course, much of this is grounded in “SHAKESPEARE” and the various ways historical movements have shaped (and manufactured) our understanding of “genius” and “artistry.” almost all english-speaking vocal technique is designed toward embodying an inherited idea of what shakespeare ought to be and how it ought to sound and what those words ought to do to us—as though any other words we might happen to say on stage are secondary to those of “SHAKESPEARE.”
the nice thing here is that they like that shakespeare guy, they think he made some pretty good words and stuff, and his dramatic craft was pretty not bad, but they never do shakespeare without translating it so the words never really get all that precious. they’ve got their giants but they’ve also gotten skeptical of a lot of the ideas that emerged during romanticism (cause, well, nationalism and stuff…) so their relationship to “brilliant text” is a bit different. well, that’s being simplistic—there’s also a tradition of dramaturgy stretching back 300 years and a lot of differing theoretical POVs on theatrical realism and and and. the end result is that there is very little by way of inherited veneration happening in the text work, which sets everyone free.
what’s interesting to watch at work in this production—and for germany, it’s actually fairly conservative i think; well done, crisp, clean, but you can tell the director is from the established generation—is the muscularity and athleticism of the text work. there’s an energetic engagement with rhythm, assonance, alliteration, a really grounded, full-body delivery, of actors grabbing words and weaponizing them, using them to create conflict. there’s an exhausting amount of speaking on this stage and there’s obvious skill and not invisible effort—and through it all they manage to make schiller’s somewhat bombastic verse sound like sentences people urgently need to say to each other.
it’s also not that they don’t give a fuck about the schiller either. the amount of work that’s gone into animating his words here is a clear sign of respect for the writing. back in canada, i find myself more and more reluctant to take on shakespeare, not because i don’t like the writing or think the plays are good, but because our culturally-inherited idea of what shakespeare means and represents (as kind of being the whole raison-d’être of theatre in general) has given nearly everyone who makes theatre a deeply personal relationship to shakespeare that becomes lot of effort to navigate. it’s sort of like taking over a production after another director bails, and then finding out that everyone in the cast fucked them and fell in love with them and now you’ve got to navigate all their feelings about that—and also make sense of a 400-year old play.
for more on the piece click here.