Dana Rufolo on the Tagus River
31 July 2022
The 39th edition of the Almada, Portugal Theater Festival which began on 4 July and finished on 18 July 2022, was nearly back to its pre-Covid level of activity, reported in the autumn 2019 issue of Plays International & Europe. There was a large community turnout for a cornucopia of dramas in Portuguese and a strong international component featuring, among others, the newest works of the directors Thomas Ostermeier from Berlin, Robert Wilson from New York, and Wim Vandekeybus from Brussels.
So as to see the main international shows, I arrived towards the end of the festival, on 13 July, and so here I will briefly mention that I missed the Portuguese premiere of Edward Albee’s Homelife, a prequel to The Zoo Story, which premiered in 2004 at the Hartford Stage in Connecticut and is translated as Em casa, no zoo. It stages Peter’s interactions with his wife Ann just before he goes off to the zoo alone and is accosted by Jerry when sitting on a park bench, reading.
I also missed the Portuguese premiere at the Cascais Experimental Theatre of Eu sou a minha própria mulher ( I Am My Own Wife) by Doug Wright, directed by Carlos Aviez and translated into Portuguese by Miguel Graça. It held the place of honour this year at the Almada Festival with the declaration that the play “confronts us with the problem of the moral judgment of those who lived under a totalitarian regime”.
What I am reporting on in this article are the stunning performances from directors Thomas Ostermeier and Robert Wilson, a circus-style performance from the company Baro d’evel that brilliantly toys with the idea that the world is coming to an end, and a documentary drama that focuses on injustices against autochthone populations in Patagonia.
The cast in Ödipus. Photo credit: Gian Marco Bresadola.
The playwright Maja Zade who has been associated with Thomas Ostermeier’s Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz since 1999 as a house dramaturg wrote the modern version of Oedipus, Ödipus (Édipo in Portuguese), that was performed in Almada for the thirty-second and thirty-third times in July 2022 after opening at the Epidaurus Festival in Athens on 3 September 2021 and premiering in its home theatre in Berlin on 19 September 2021. The play is a remarkably convincing fit with the original Greek tragedy by Sophocles. Although there are some slightly jarring elements, with its contemporary themes it is a major achievement. Ostermeier is the director of Zade’s Ödipus, presented in Almada in the original German with surtitles in Portuguese.
The production features the renowned German actress Caroline Peters in the lead role of Christina. Following on the death of her CEO husband, Christina has taken over as the director of a German family-run chemical business. Presently, Christina is vacationing in her villa in Greece with her brother Robert (Christian Tschirner) who plays his role as brother and company board member with convincingly contemporary edginess, her best friend Theresa (Isabelle Redfern), and the latest hire of the family-run business Michael (Schaubühne actor Renato Schuch). Christina is in love with Michael as is he with her, and she is several months pregnant, carrying their future daughter. Indeed, this younger man Michael – who initially seems perfectly up to the role of husband and father but who gradually collapses – will turn out to be her son, given up for adoption at birth when she was very young and already married.
Plays International & Europe as a printed magazine carried an interview with Caroline Peters in 2016 which is available in this online Plays International & Europe platform. She is a member of the ensemble of the Burgtheater in Vienna and branched out to Berlin’s Schaubühne during these last two Covid-dominated years in order to remain maximally employed.
An additional personage in Zade’s Ödipus, Wolfgang, was killed in an automobile accident which we discover was unwittingly instigated by Michael some time before he joined the family firm. Wolfgang was Christina’s husband, and the baby (Michael) she gave up for adoption decades ago was his son, for she felt he had coldly raped her even though they were married, and she did not want to see or raise any child of his.
The cast in Ödipus. Photo credit: Gian Marco Bresadola.
Wolfgang looms large in the family history. Unlike Laius in the Greek Oedipus, a neutral figure whose actions are interpreted as evil by the gods, Wolfgang (with what we are told is his crassly dominating personality) represents evil, and it is from him that the malevolence about to encircle the family emanates. When I said after the show to Peters that he seems a dictator character, someone whose existence brings misery and terror to fellow humans, she proposed that Wolfgang bears a similarity to Harvey Weinstein.
Ostermeier’s traditional scene designer Jan Pappelbaum created a site-neutral kitchen-dining area with an exterior garden patio. We are given no clues that the action takes place in Greece (apart from some ambiguous video footage). A statue of the Sphinx is the only decoration, and it is destroyed during the play whereas during the prelude to the play a continuous video projected stage left shows a grainy image of the sphinx engulfed in flames and then becoming visible again. The interior area of the set is outlined in bars of white light designed by Erich Schneider.
The most challenging aspect of the entire play is when the characters apprehend their true kinship relationship to one another. The revelation of incest strains the boundaries of realism so carefully maintained up to then, and I must confess to being among those in the audience who laughed loudly over the jarring discordance when Michael and Christina discover they are son and mother. But both actors face the challenge of enacting responses to an emotionally incomprehensible truth with brilliance, subtly converting their acting into something more baroque and stylized. Ostermeier directed the actors to slow down all their movements and to linger over the words which are like tiny explosions emerging from disbelief. They did so, thereby taking this scene out of the realm of the normal. Michael staggers his words as he says, “I have been in you. . . .I have been in you.” Their mouths hang open in disbelief and their jaws drop, thus giving their faces a masklike appearance and thrusting the action back into the original Sophoclean context, suggesting that the shock they are experiencing is imposed by a force superior to human willpower.
It is the son, not the mother, who commits suicide in this Oedipus, the play ending with the blue lights of an ambulance revolving in the blackness at the rear of the stage. A focus on eyes, and the interplay of sight, insight, and recognition have been totally eliminated in Zade’s Ödipus. And there is no Tiresias, but rather Theresa provides the link from the hidden past to the tumultuous present because she attached a talisman to the baby which she recognizes when Michael shows her the only relic he has linking him with his birth mother.
The remarkable revival of the austere experimental Robert Wilson and Lucinda Childs’ 1977 performance piece I was Sitting on the patio this guy appeared I thought I was hallucinating was staged in the Queen Maria II National Theatre across the Tagus River from Almada in Lisbon, and the auditorium was full to cracking even though the piece is in English with Portuguese only in surtitles. On the square opposite the theatre, a blue and yellow gathering of silent, peaceful defenders of Ukrainian sovereignty held up protest signs with messages like “Adolph Putin” and “Protect Ukrainian children”, their objective being to draw the attention of the predominantly English-speaking audience accessing the theatre’s foyer.
Photo-credit: Axel Hörhager.
The piece is directed by Robert Wilson and conforms to the original drama, although the co-director of this revival is Charles Chemin working with the Théâtre de la Ville in Paris where it premiered from 20 September to 23 October 2021. The actors Christopher Nell and Julie Shanahan replace Robert Wilson and Lucinda Childs. It is a theatrical landmark in itself, beautiful and precise, superbly decorated, lit, and costumed (artists Annick Lavallée-Benny, Marcello Lumaca, and Carlos Soto) – a work of dramatic art of the highest order.
There is no doubt that in the conflictual, politically anxious mood of the 2020s, this nonchalant experimental work is a living museum piece – and not simply because the phone that rings throughout the piece on and off is a retro black dial phone with its original ring (sound: Nick Sagar). It was created in a less complex era where the right to experiment was tacitly encouraged; where scientific metaphors about the atom permeated everyday life sufficiently so that theatrical elements like movement and vocal pitch were effortlessly conceived as distinct units equal in dramatic value to message, and where even message itself – if words that were meant to persuade or establish character were used – might well be construed as biased prejudice. The original I was Sitting. . . was produced in an age Lucinda Childs calls a “time of pop art and minimalism”. It was an intellectual era.
Additionally, Robert Wilson’s 1977 performance was created shortly after Einstein on the Beach within a dominant alternative aesthetic background that included video art practiced by American artists like Andy Warhol whose films of private superheroes were drawn-out sequences lacking in dramatic tension. Warhol’s 1964 Sleep, for instance, was nothing more than a nearly five-hour-long film recording of someone sleeping.
The academic Patti Gaal-Holmes points out that “Sleep significantly countered earlier experimental films focused on dreams and the unconscious by literally showing someone sleeping”. Warhol was resisting the thrall of psychoanalysis by shrinking symbolic language to the pragmatic. Wilson does the same.
Christopher Nell in I was Sitting on the patio ...
Photo credit: Lucie Jansch.
It must be borne in mind that, in America, Sigmund Freud’s style of psychoanalysis was as yet unchallenged in the 1970s. His hypothesis is that if the person under analysis verbalizes whatever comes to her or his mind uncensored, there will be associations and patterns in these thoughts permitting the analyst to recognize and identify the subconscious truths that are being suppressed by the analysed. Then, this method was considered profoundly insightful.
The opposite occurs in I was Sitting … The stream of consciousness nature of the dialogue yields no psychoanalytic insights; we do not gain an understanding of the characters’ personalities at all. In fact they are not even really “characters”, because except for the manner in which the lines are delivered – aspects like volume of voice, rhythm of speech – nothing about their individuality is revealed in lines such as: “…The snake is used to living in a hot climate / Codie / I was promised vacation time /She’s doing well Charlie / Martha / It’s been a long time /It’s been a long time / I don’t even know what to tell you any more . . . ” (translated from the French.) In fact, the most individualizing utterances of all were in German when Nell, who is German, surprisingly sings at one point in his monologue the bedtime chant “Schlaf, Kindlein, schlaf! Da draußen steht ein Schaf …”; although virtually everything else was repeated, significantly these lines were not said by Australian Shanahan.
Visually, I was Sitting . . . is striking in its perfect scene design where each second during the performance the images we see are controlled. We are aware of the complete mastery of lighting, stage objects, movement, costume, setting, and design. The predominant use of black and white with a precise balance between areas of shadow and light and lines and columns is beautiful to behold. The progression of the piece from one lighting-scape to another gives the audience the impression of watching a film one frame at a time.
Again, there is an artistic precedent in the 1970s for this approach coming from a dramatic form of installation art that was very much on the cusp of performance art. Edward Kienholz’s installations – for instance The Beanery which recreates down to details of bottle labels the interior of a popular Hollywood bar, Barney’s Beanery, stuffed with clients each of whom has a clock for a face and which incorporates a looping audio tape of the kind of empty-content conversations one hears at a bar and eatery – are classed as art since there is no acting going on. However, in their incorporation of lighting, scenography in the form of a close to full-size set, and model figures representing people positioned within the environment of the set who are costumed (in what was then contemporary clothing) – these installations approach the theatrical. Wilson pushed the installation concept one step further by having his living actors talk and move within a non-realistic controlled artistic setting.
Noting Wilson’s artistic brethren is not meant to diminish his originality and genius. I was Sitting on the patio this guy appeared I thought I was hallucinating is rivetingly original even today, and the audience followed the two-act performance (first Nell’s monologue and then Shanahan’s, virtually identical) with rapturous attention followed by an enthusiastic standing ovation the night I saw it.
Falaise (French for “cliff”) is a production of the dance and circus company Baro d’evel located not far from Toulouse in Balma, France. The artistic directors are Camille Decourtye and Blaï Mateu Trias, who both direct and act in the piece.
Works of the nature of Falaise when they are actualizations of every intention of the company producing them, as this is, can never be done justice to with words. On principle, Falaise is extra-verbal. And yet for me to say “indescribable” and to then instruct “see them perform” is to cheaply reject my critic’s responsibility to readers. The only way I know to convey the experience is to discuss the piece’s cumulative effect.
Noëmie Bouissou in Falaise. Photo credit: François Passerini.
Firstly, Falaise is highly theatrical. The cliffs jutting around a mid-stage clearing is a performance playground for circus-arts-trained actors who hang from tiny holdings, fling their bodies backwards like horseshoe-shaped magnets attracted to metal, flip, dance, and jump without protective nets, hang from cliff edges . . . . Pigeons and a horse are integrated into the cast and performance. Each animal is superbly trained to the point of acquiring the status of characters for us in the audience, even though we eventually figure out that their moves are a response to subtle hand signs from their on-stage actor trainers. Actors crack through the walls of the cliffs and crawl out of the holes like moths out of cocoons with temporally-coordinated regularity. Sounds, musical sounds, even the soft cooing of the pigeons were all orchestrated; they had been incorporated into the Total Theatre script. Sentences are said – in Portuguese and in broken English; most are resigned statements about human existence.
Secondly, extremely sophisticated theatrical machinery backstage is used. For instance, noises boom behind the cliff walls not unlike how the walls in Sam Shepard’s surrealistic Fool for Love are to loudly vibrate according to his stage directions. This technological support – understandable in a cast that has known mobile phones and Facebook from birth – belies the improvisational, spontaneous nature of movements on stage and yet does not undercut the piece’s depressive message.
When in Falaise a romantic couple’s clothing begins to crack and drop off them in hardened fragments as if the two were made of porcelain and had begun to fall apart (I presume they had been clothed in plaster of Paris costumes), the overwhelmingly sad, almost hopeless, mood of this young-persons’ piece becomes starkly evident. In Falaise, the actors tell us that there is little chance of a tomorrow; the world is not improving in any way. They are condemned ones, acting out their despair.
The only negative aspect about the superb performance I have to report is that the 12 actors and musicians continued the show beyond what the audience understood was its official conclusion, cemented by standing ovations (which have been fairly common at this year’s Festival of Almada). They performed a rehearsed dance on stage as a response to the rhythmic clapping of audience approval, and that was fine. But when, like the Pied Piper of fairy-tale fame, they began a march from the stage up the aisles and into the second-floor foyer with their trumpets and noisemakers inexorably pushing forward, they obstructed the flow of exiting spectators and visibly provoked unease, even a small wave of panic. Apparently, this finale was approved by the theatre administrators, but at that moment the company’s enthusiastic self-expression seemed about to collapse us all into chaos.
I conclude this article by discussing the performance that was my initial experience of the Almada Festival: Tierras del Sud (Terras do Sul in Portuguese) by Antic Theatre, a Catalonian-Spanish theatre company in Barcelona. It is the second part of a trilogy called Pacífico developed by the twosome Laida Azkona Goñi and Txalo Toloza-Fernández who also have links to Chile.
Laida Azkona Goñi and Txalo Toloza-Ferández in Tierras del Sud.
Photo credit: Alessia Bombachi.
The colonialist and exploitative Argentinian land purchases by major Hollywood and business figures that are an outrageous infringement against the Mapuche native peoples in Patagonia was the theme of the Spanish company’s documentary drama Tierras del Sud (Terras do Sul in Portuguese). The argument and in fact the discourse of this 90-minute “drama” is best described in this extract from the August 9, 2017 article by Jack Pannell titled Benetton in Patagonia – The Oppression of Mapuche in the Argentine South and published in the online magazine of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs:
“Benetton, the global Italian fashion brand, currently owns 2.2 million acres of land in Argentina, an area the size of Puerto Rico. This makes the company the largest private landowner in the country. It uses the land for livestock, farming, prospecting, fossil fuel extraction, and logging. The events of January were not the first incident between the state and Mapuche on Benetton land. Despite this, Benetton, which acquired the lands in the late 1990s, claimed on its website in 2010 that the company has, “found itself unwittingly involved” in an issue dating back over 100 years, implying no complicity on the part of the corporation. Regardless of Benetton’s purported innocence on the issue, it repeatedly has demonstrated a disregard for the rights of the indigenous people when it asserts its right to private ownership is paramount to the Mapuche’s antecedent claims. The Argentine state is also highly complicit in the rejection of indigenous rights, ignoring established legal precedents and actively demonising these groups as criminals to justify their violent oppression. All of these factors have resulted in a situation in which the Mapuche are denied their rights to their ancestral lands, which are enshrined in the Argentine Constitution.”
All these facts are undisputed, even to the point where the rigorously research-based Amnesty International has taken up the cause of the Mapuche peoples. So, the Catalonian company’s desire to bring yet-another injustice to the attention of the local public and its invited critics such as myself is an excellent and honestly humanitarian act.
Two actors produce the entire show, each delivering long monologues that report on the evolution of the fight especially between the Benetton empire and the native people. Benetton was chosen as the focus, although a surprisingly long list of Hollywood stars, including Jane Fonda whom we associate with leftist protest acts, are property owners in Patagonia and therefore infringe on Mapuche territorial rights.
Apart from the story itself, familiar in its rhetoric, alas – think the American and Canadian Indian tribes – if new in its geophysical location, was delivered in Spanish with Portuguese surtitles.
The two actors choose to dramatize their story of neo-colonial brutality fuelled by the greed of wealthy private individuals by building on stage a miniature mock-up of the Patagonian landscape. As they deliver their lines in an unemotional narrative style, they erect first a tepee-type native village which transforms into an Andes Mountain range using interlocking reddish sticks and then they add green circular foam objects on a tripod of stilts meant to represent a more western village bordered by conical objects intended to represent a dense forest. The audience’s interest is maintained, but certainly the actors did not perform for an oppositional audience and besides we were all locked in a theatre. Since I personally have initiated a practical research project on how to intensify the efficacy of street theatre in portraying public issues, I couldn’t help but ask myself how many spectators the duo would have if Tierras del Sud were performed on some busy plaza or market square. Not many, I suspect. The actors are far more earnest than compellingly dramatic.
How I longed to see the two actors interact – perhaps symbolically stage a conflict rather than merely report on one! Let Txalo pull Liada’s hair, or more dramatically perhaps have her pull his hair, thereby dramatizing the 2017 scene of suppression that they mention and that Amnesty International reports on when Argentinian security forces used violence against the Pu Lof community of the Mapuches. Let us see the Benneton sales posters of their “United Colours” in all their implicit racism rather than instead showing grainy black and white anthropological research-style photos of indigenous people that pose the natives as if they were wax statues. Above all, let the one most dramatic artefact used during performance – nudity – be used in full cognizance of its power and significance. When Liada drops her tank top to replicate the photo of a native teenager shown during their exposé, she means the audience to understand that the original model was violated, her modesty insulted. But I am not convinced that exposing us to a few minutes of partial nudity on stage compensates in dramatic impact for the low-key documentary style that prevails, especially given that we haven’t access to the historical girl’s attitude towards being photographed semi-nude. Nor were we able to discern the actor’s attitude towards semi-nudity. What I did see was a woman, Liada, not an actress, standing a bit too still, looking a bit too defiant; certainly not particularly happy to be acting the part.
The challenge of presenting drama dealing with human rights violations in such a way that audiences are enlightened and engaged has been tackled by Tierras del Sud but is not resolved. The struggle continues in the search for an honest, factual, and morally convincing performance style that pleads the cause of justice.