Notes From Berlin (Part I)

Constanze Becker in Thalheimer's "Medea"

Constanze Becker in Thalheimer’s “Medea”

My colleague Meiyin Wang and I arrived in Berlin on Saturday, May 4, a day before the conference officially began. We spent the morning and afternoon wandering the city, warm and leafy green, acclimating to the new environment and makes Vines of me reading advertisements and street signs an a bad German accent. That evening I saw my first Theatertreffen production, Michael Thalheimer‘s Medea, produced by Schauspiel Frankfurt at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele. 

I use the possessive when referring to Thalheimer because Germany’s system is known as regietheater, or “Director’s Theater”. The underlying premise of the German State Theater system seems predicated on the idea that the Ancient Greek Classics are the highest form of theatrical aspiration and accomplishment, followed by the German greats like Goethe and Schiller and then, maybe, other Western greats such as Shakespeare, perhaps Chekhov or Ibsen. In this system, a director builds his reputation by his staging of the classics. His task (and it is almost always a “he”) is to engage with the Greeks in a new way, to find a distinctive presentational aesthetic that conveys his singular interpretive vision of the grand themes of Classical texts.

Thalheimer’s aesthetic is stark and spare. The stage design is minimal, the play opens on a darkly massive empty stage across which a single old woman, Medea’s elderly nurse, tramps slowly and deliberately, to convey the story thus far. As I recall she is then joined by another woman, the sole representative of the chorus of Corinthian women, to narrate the unfolding horror. But the true moment of startling awakening is when Constanze Becker enters as Medea. It is quite impossible to convey in words Ms. Becker’s charisma, power, authority and presence. With a laser focus of intention supported by incredible physical and emotional intensity, her embodiment of Medea was stunning and moving. She was the perfect complement to Thalheimer’s clean visual aesthetic and spare style delivering Peter Krumme’s economic, effective translation of Euripides’ text with alternately fury, guile and despair. (I actually don’t know how it sounded in German, since I don’t speak it, but the English surtitles were quite good.)

Thalheimer has reduced the cast to seven actors total, a not unprecedented idea and one we see later in other productions in the festival. But his staging is one of precision and stillness where actors enter with clear physical identities, establish a strong base stance and deliver the text from deep in the diaphragm. To my imagining it refers to an operatic style of delivery that one might associate with classical oratory. It is a welcome rejection of psychological realism and suggest a belief that the total commitment of physical embodiment in service of the text will create the necessary scope of heightened emotion and drama.

This aesthetic clarity allows us to see the grand themes and conflicts as if in relief, unobscured by the reductive psychological conceits of modernity. Perhaps it is because I have been reading David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years, that I felt Jason’s betrayal of Medea so strongly. Graeber proposes the existence of what he calls “human economies” in the ancient world where societies “held a radically different conception of debt and social relations, based on the radical incalculability of human life and the constant creation and recreation of social bonds through gifts, marriages and general sociability.” (Wikipedia) In this construction, Medea’s actions in service of Jason create a debt that cannot possibly be repaid. Medea has intentionally ripped herself from her social context and all the cultural attributes that form her status in her native land. She has, for love, enslaved herself to Jason and become subject to his whim. His betrayal, made all the worse by his revealing of himself to be callow and opportunistic, not only eviscerates the core meaning of Medea’s existence, but demonstrates that he was not worth her sacrifice to begin with. Thus the inexorable path towards tragedy and destruction.

As the tragic plot is set unstoppably in motion, the entire back wall of the set, with Medea on it as if on a balcony addressing the chorus, moves to the foot of the stage sweeping Jason and the sole chorus member along with it. It is at once completely unsubtle and obvious and incredibly powerful. The rest of the horror unfolds at the foot of the stage with one mournful soliloquy after another recounting the gore and terror Medea has unleashed as she seeks her revenge – or more accurately, some form of justice.

For perhaps the first time I was not only deeply attached to the plot itself, but the entire production actually resonated as metaphor with implications for the relationship of the individual and the state, interpersonal relationships, the complexity of social negotiations, the fragility of individual status and esteem and the perilous role of political and military diplomacy in determining the conditions of everyday life. This richness of meaning and experience was hardly expected.

I have to admit I entered the theater with no small amount of trepidation. Two hours of Greek tragedy in German with no interval, after a transatlantic flight with no sleep, did not seem promising. But even before the Theatertreffen Symposium had officially begun I had already been presented with some of the key themes, ideas and issues that would unfold over the next week.

Later in the week people told me that in this production Thalheimer was recycling his old tricks, tried and true. This may be the case, but for an American theatergoer conditioned to watching mediocre Method actors over-emoting in overstuffed, over-conceptualized, dramaturgically unsound and visually cluttered vanity productions of the Classics, this Medea was a welcome salve and promising augur of things to come.

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