PERFORMANCE / Arrested development: Andrew Lucre reports from Germany on new approaches to music-theatre from directors Robert Wilson, Werner Herzog and Ruth Berghaus

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
As a theatre director Robert Wilson has long been fascinated by time and its relationship to space. After staging his own dreams, he has finally come to tackle Lewis Carroll's archetype, Alice in Wonderland, for the Thalia Theatre in Hamburg. These days unfortunately his schedule doesn't always allow him the time to produce the depth and precision that marked his best work. Recent pieces seem to be from 'the school of Wilson', with much of the work done by collaborators while the master oversees the grand design. But newcomers will be spellbound by Alice, while initiates will be intrigued.

His unique neo-Surrealist style, combining architecture, colour, text and movement, results in a haunting evocation of Alice's world. So does his choice of collaborators. The texts of Paul Schmidt, a member of New York's Wooster Group, are finely woven from the writings of Charles Dodgson. He frames them with the figures of Dodgson, photographer and voyeur, the young Alice in blue, and a middle-aged Alice in red, haunted by the perversity of her early sexual experiences. The young Alice (Annette Paulmann) is the only character to express any emotion; the rest are defined only by their external appearance. It's as if the middle- aged Alice leafs through the pages of Dodgson desperately trying to recall the magic of her youth and seeing only its spectres.

The 15 songs by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan further this notion by harbouring echoes of the past and portents of the future. Strains of Bernstein's 'Somewhere', klezmer music, blues and music hall are filtered through a variety of instruments - a stro-violin, waterphones, a theremin, wind wands - played by an octet conducted by Francis Thumm. It has a very different feel to the first Wilson/Waits collaboration, The Black Rider, which was a slick, melodic and vaudevillian version of the Faust legend.

Mauricio Kagel's short 1977 work, Variete, currently revived at Berlin's Hebbel Theatre, also combines the musical idioms associated with the traditional vaudeville style. Kagel, however, subverts the Black Rider structure and creates an atmosphere more like Alice. He demands that the performers - professional variety artists, amateurs or both - adhere to the dictates of his score and not their own spontaneity. In this production by film director Werner Herzog, eight variety artists, ranging from African acrobats to a shadow puppeteer conjuring animals on a screen, appear to be dancing to a distant tune. Kagel's long phrases, often with accordion, accompany acts that themselves seem to be manipulated by an unseen hand.

This strange state of suspension is also at the heart of Ruth Berghaus's Frankfurt Opera House production of Der Rosenkavalier. The only characters to be truly aware of the carnival of time appear to be the Marschallin and her black serving boy. The latter is lucky, for he has become a puppet for whom time has ceased to exist. The Marschallin, though, can see all too clearly the feebleness of her attempts to delay time's decay by stopping the clocks. This new production of Richard Strauss's 1911 work offended many at its recent opening. At the interval the audience breathed a sigh of relief that Erich Wonder's Art Nouveau sets had been so restrained; but their worst fears were realised when Berghaus turned the final act into a holocaustic vision. Sophie and Octavian were trapped in a dream box, unable to see that outside lay only the horrors of the world war to come. Arguably over-politicised, Berghaus's production had a strength of vision and detail of argument hard to fault. Wilson's Alice accused Dodgson of stopping her clock and freezing time with his camera; Berghaus shows that photographs cannot make time stand still but merely arrest specific spatial circumstances. As Strauss's chromatic lines soar to suspend the moment, Sophie (Pia-Marie Nilsson) and Octavian (Ildiko Komlosi) grip the metallic petals of the silver rose between their teeth, oblivious to a reality where time will turn the sweet youth Octavian into the ebullient Baron Ochs. Though sometimes top- heavy, conductor Spiros Argiris made an exciting Frankfurt debut supporting fine singing from the entire cast. In particular Deborah Polaski's Marschallin revealed a rich variety of tonal expression.

'And the wall won't come down till they are no longer afraid of themselves,' sings Humpty Dumpty in the most poignant number from Tom Waits' score for Alice. The heroines of Wilson and Berghaus leave the stage unable to be heard beneath the artificial silence of the utopian dream imposed by men to stem the march of time.

Comments