European actresses who love language.
Caroline Peters and Sylvie Rohrer talk to Dana Rufolo.
When Le Monde carries an article on the Polish director Krystian Lupa’s staging of Austrian Thomas Bernhard’s play Heldenplatz at the Avignon theatre festival referring to the play’s title as “Place des héros” or “Hero’s Square”, there is good reason to despair over the health of European theatre. Heldenplatz is a proper place name for a downtown Vienna site. It is equivalent to New York City’s Times Square which even the French would not refer to as “Place du temps.” How can there still be such unfamiliarity with a European neighbour?
The ensemble in Bella Figura. Photo credit: Reinhard Werner.
Fortunately, ignorance of one another’s culture is not ubiquitous in Europe. It was quite reassuring to interview the spirited, blonde-haired German actress Caroline Peters, who played the impetuous girlfriend of a married man, the lead in Yasmina Reza’s Bella Figura, at Vienna Burgtheater’s Akademietheater. She is clearly familiar with a vast range of dramatic literature in many European languages and just about the entire body of German dramatic literature and the contemporary German- language theatre scene (her career started out in Berlin). It was sobering to observe her hard-working approach to her profession. In a recent interview in Theater Heute (Jahrbuch 2016), she modestly differentiated herself from colleagues only in her extra-sensitive awareness of the relationship between herself in role on stage and the audience’s perceptions and responses to her character. She added, “Theater is live. Something is happening between the person on the stage who is playing and the person in the audience who is watching … It is entirely possible that the same sentence will be heard by the audiences on different nights in an entirely different way.
A day later I interviewed her colleague Sylvie Rohrer, a fellow member of the Vienna Burgtheater’s repertory company. Rohrer, a tall and slender black-haired woman with a gentle demeanour, plays the role of the married wife Françoise in this two-couple and one-elderly-parent Reza play. Although of French mother tongue, she chose to develop herself as a German-speaking actress. When she moved to Zurich to study acting years ago, at the audition people wanted to know why she had not chosen to study in France. It was because she was in love with the sound of the spoken German language. (“I wanted to play Buchner and Kleist. I knew Racine, Corneille, Molière and I loved them, but for me German is one of the most interesting languages. German especially has a wonderful sensitivity and sensuality for me. German words transport a lot of images on stage when it is well spoken – it’s very clear in the thoughts, and the words have a strong onomatopoeic meaning, it is sinnlich (sensual).”) In Zurich, the school’s director Felix Rellstab noticed the quiet determination that defines her character and said, “The theatre needs people like you.” He worked on phonetics with her for many extra hours to rid her of what she calls “a very strong French melody”. His method was to have her change language every time he snapped his finger – from French to Swiss German to German – and in this way it was “the first time (she) saw that each language has a different Sprachzug (rhythm)”. She trained herself to distinguish the difference between the sounds of French and German, and nowadays her ear is attuned to differences between, say, Elfrieda Jelinek’s use of German as experienced in the monologue Über Tiere she performed at the Burgtheater (“just words…just sitting and speaking”) and Yasmina Reza in German translation (“The most important thing is to get in contact with each other …. Nobody’s weaker, nobody’s a victim.”).
Caroline Peters and Joachim Meyerhoff in Bella Figura.
Photo credit: Reinhard Werner.
Both Caroline Peters and Sylvie Rohrer refer to the plays they have acted in by the name of the text and the author, not by the name of the director who develops the productions. Both are sensitive to how that author uses German. Although both are well known – especially Caroline Peters who has been interviewed often lately – neither pays any attention to being a star. Peters played the identical role in Bella Figura that Nina Hoss played in the world premiere at Thomas Ostermeier’s Berliner Schaubühne in 2015, but she scrupulously avoided seeing Hoss’s interpretation so as to remain original and authentic. The result is a less ferocious, far frothier and tender interpretation of the character, guided by the acutely rhythm-sensitive interpretation of Dieter Giesing, the director of the Burgtheater’s production. Rohrer, however, came to rehearsals for Bella Figura with a preconceived notion of how to play her role, but when she was told to remove the pathos from her interpretation she understood Giesing’s vision and demurred without protest.
Yasmina Reza is a French playwright who has an international reputation. Art premiered in Paris in 1994; translated by Christopher Hampton,, Art played in the West End of London in 1994 and on Broadway in 1996. God of Carnage premiered in Paris in 2008. It opened in London – also in 2008, again in a Christopher Hampton translation – and in 2009 on Broadway. The first German-language staging was in Zurich in 2006, with a translation by Frank Heibert and Hinrich Schmidt-Henkel. The question I asked was: “Did Caroline Peters and Sylvie Rohrer treat Bella Figura like an exotic, foreign, and French play, or did they perform Reza’s play as if it was European, perhaps even German? Was this the equivalent to asking how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” The reply was: “Not exactly, for my objective was to ascertain to what extent there is a body of modern dramatic literature that feels “European”. After all, Peters is German. Rohrer is Swiss – which is a simplification because although her father is Swiss-German and she grew up in the Swiss-German city of Berne, her mother is Swiss-Romande and so, as pointed out earlier, her mother tongue had been French. The other members of the cast include German actors like Peters, and the director is German. The play is being performed in repertory in Austria to a predominantly Austrian audience. The production did not tour.
The answer they gave was, essentially, that the play was not language, or at least not political language — the language of the streets and commerce, the language used to get things done and to push forward attitudes, prejudices, interests, conflict. To them, the play is music set to words. Dieter Giesing felt this, too.
They all did. Yasmina’s mother was a professional violinist, and the Reza household was saturated in music. Bella Figura has a rhythm and a flow to it that the good translation by Thomas Ostermeier and Florian Borchmeyer, which they worked with, retained. And when the flow seemed broken, Peters explained, during rehearsal they altered the translation – added or subtracted a word, a phrase. It was the pauses in the phrases that Giesing had them focus on the most. These telling silences when all the actors come to a halt in order to transition into a scene with a different direction were an essential part of the music of the play. It was to be expected, Peters explained, that each director hears these silences – about which the playwright is very strict, sometimes calling them “flottements” (moments of hesitation) – at slightly different places in the script.
Fine, yes, the play is musical; it pulsates with rhythms. But, Bella Figura is a play with strongly drawn characters, each with a distinctive personality; it has a plot, the characters argue, there is conflict. Andrea (Peters) and Boris (Joachim Meyerhoff) sit in a car in the parking lot of an expensive restaurant; they argue as to whether to go eat there, and that is because Boris told Andrea that his wife recommended the restaurant. Since Andrea is Boris’ mistress, she is furious he mentioned his wife or referred to her taste in fine dining. They decide to drive off, but while backing up Boris knocks over Yvonne (Kristen Dene) the mother of the husband of a married couple (Françoise, Rohrer and Eric (Roland Koch), both for whom it is a second marriage. Françoise is a very close friend of Boris’ wife, and so although they end up spending the entire evening together in the restaurant, the questions always hovering in the background are what Boris’ relationship to Andrea really is and if Françoise has the responsibility to let Boris’ wife know about Andrea.
Does the plot sound French? Are the characters somehow typically French and could not be from another country? There, not surprisingly, the actresses differed somewhat in their responses. “Certainly”, said Caroline Peters. “It was all there, the stereotypes: the extramarital affair, the endless cigarette-smoking (the women are the smokers, and none more than her character).” She continued, “A German playwright could never conceive of having a whole play based on the idea of love and romance …. In Germany love is not so important. You have to be serious. Actually, a play has to be about politics or about history … I really enjoy … that Yasmina Reza thinks that things that happen between one, two, three, or five persons … are important”. And yet, with its depiction of “patchwork families” and the financial problems of the men, it also felt contemporary. The audience can psychologically identify with the characters. “For every person in the audience, you have a kind of alter-ego on the stage – for the young lover, for the young mother, for the older mother, for the married couple who want to do everything right, want to be perfect.”
Rohrer had a more nuanced reaction. She wanted to keep the French pronunciation of their names and in fact felt it “alienating” to not do so, but after discussion the director and other actors decided on the German pronunciation. The setting is intentionally extra-national. The car on stage is an Audi. And yet, she pointed out, the setting is French. There are no beaches like the one portrayed in Germany or Austria. The designer Stéphane Laimé toyed with the distinction between a prop that was real and props that were designed to enhance the mood of a scene – which plays right into the theme of the play – in order to create a sense of hyper-reality. The opening scene has the completely functional canary-yellow convertible car on stage and in the background a beautiful and obviously painted backdrop of a beach esplanade that curves towards a distant promontory with a lighthouse at its tip. The romantic scene is touched with reality by the presence of a genuine flashing lighthouse lamp. It was fitted into the painted lighthouse and, from the audience’s perspective, lends an aura of verisimilitude to the backdrop.
Apparently, Reza wrote an open letter to the cast which Giesing read at the very first rehearsal in which she emphasized that Andrea and Boris really love each other. This was the tack the director took. Sylvie Rohrer was told to abandon the righteous indignation she believed Françoise needed to feel when she understood that Andrea and Boris were lovers, calling that reaction predictable and therefore “boring”.
Françoise retains her rationality and open-mindedness, which in fact surprised me when I saw the play and she calmly delivered her lines, standing front stage and apart from the other characters. I had myself read indignation into those lines when reading the script beforehand and was anticipating her getting loud and out of control with anger, but instead she delivered those lines with studied neutrality. That was because, and she emphasized this repeatedly, Dieter Giesing told her and all the actors that nobody in the play sees herself or himself as a victim. Because of this attitude, both actresses proudly admit that with every performance “it is getting easier and lighter. Which is good. Not too loud or too aggressive.”
In the final analysis, both Caroline Peters and Sylvie Rohrer agreed that the themes of the play are “recognizable to everyone,” turning Bella Figura into a European, or at least a Western, drama. Sylvie Rohrer pointed out that Muslim refugees would not necessarily be able to identify with the characters on stage. They would not use the same relational conflicts to situate their problems and concerns in a drama. Most Europeans of whatever creed, however, understand the issues of infidelity, bankruptcy, untraditional family groupings, and dealing with elderly, weakening parents.