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Theatre Journal 56.2 (2004) 289-293

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The 40th Theatertreffen. Berlin. 2-18 May 2003.

One of the great pleasures of attending an annual festival, particularly one charged with staging ten noteworthy productions from across German-speaking Europe, is the chance to catch up with old favorites; another is the chance to meet new artists. The Theatertreffen's highlight for me was the chance finally to see work by Michael Thalheimer, who burst onto the national scene with two Theatertreffen selections in 2001. After seeing Thalheimer's production of Schnitzler's Liebelei for the Thalia Theater Hamburg (along with two local Berlin productions) I can understand why: Thalheimer is easily the most original director I have encountered in the better part of a decade.

Thalheimer worked through to the play's emotional core, then stripped away everything that might obscure that core—including a whole Schnitzler performance tradition. Thalheimer staged the production in an empty box set with walls and (mildly raked) floor seemingly made of concrete. Within this cold, geometrical space, actors wearing the kind of clothing available anywhere in today's "Euro-zone" traced a careful choreography that brought them into strong spatial relationships with the walls and with each other. In addition to their character's lines, Thalheimer provided a cinematically omnipresent music track—melancholy variations on the film song, "Trouble Every Day."

Liebelei told the story of four emotionally-empty young people. Thalheimer's fine-tuned control of our spatial experience helped us experience this emptiness as the disconnect between emotion and the ability to sustain or build on it. Thalheimer and the actors followed a similar path in their work, stripping away gesture and intonation to reach a stark simplicity that allowed them to explore characters that seem to be experiencing a life they cannot put into words. Thalheimer understood that theatre can explore the life that cannot be put into words, and he developed an impressively original style to help him do so.

The pleasure of seeing Thalheimer's work was complemented by the pleasure of seeing new work by two Theatertreffen regulars: Christoph Marthaler and Frank Castorf. Groundings was another of the bitingly witty original concoctions of word, song, and physical comedy with which the team of Marthaler, dramaturg Stefanie Carp, and designer Anna Viebrock helped reestablish Schauspiel Zurich as an international player. Groundings presented the antics of a group of recently fired executives attending a retraining seminar. Just who was being ridiculed there was pretty clear, however. Much of the evening's text was drawn from statements by the Swiss Air executives and others in government and finance who managed to fly Switzerland's national airline into bankruptcy in the fall of 2001; the planes were even grounded for a time. The Swiss took this as an affront to their national honor, [End Page 289] and part of the eminently political work undertaken by this deft comedy was to encourage the audience to question its own silliness in mistaking a business for a national monument.

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Figure 1
Julia Jentsch (Electra) pours a libation at the grave of Agamemnon while the Chorus of cleaning women prepares to enter sleeping cubicles beneath the Palace-as-lounge-bar in Andreas Kreigenburg's production of the Oresteia at the Munich Kammerspiele. Photo: Andreas Pohlmann.

No one in the German theatre has Marthaler's lightness of touch. He was able to bring audiences serious insights by means of clowning; by stringing together conservative popular songs, he provided hilariously critical insight into the character of reactionary Swiss nationalism. It did not hurt, of course, that he pulled together a pool of actors (young and middle-aged) who can sing like angels, do pratfalls, and seemingly undertake anything else required.

Unfortunately, Marthaler ran into administrative problems of his own in Zurich, as his theatre began to run a large deficit mostly not of his own making. He was fired, then rehired under a more limited contract in what was called a "Hoffnungsvariante." This phrase is the subtitle to Groundings, and Swissair was not the only operation being pilloried. Unfortunately, living in...


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