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Reviewed by:
  • Herr Paul
  • Jeffrey Stephens
Herr Paul. By Tankred Dorst. Directed by Radu Afrim. Sibiu International Theatre Festival. Radu Stanca National Theatre, Sibiu, Romania. 6 June 2010.

Radu Afrim gained attention in the West when Michael Billington, theatre critic of London's Guardian, reviewed his iconoclastic production of Three Sisters at Bucharest's Odeon Theatre in 2003. Billington loathed the production and said so in print on 10 November of that year. Billington characterized Afrim's Three Sisters as representative of "postmodern perversity," because Afrim allegedly displaced the literary text in favor of his own vision of Chekhov. What is most compelling about Afrim's work is most compelling about the work of all influential directors since Peter Brook—namely, that although such wildly unorthodox productions as Three Sisters attracted both devoted followers and angry critics, Afrim does not impose what is broadly deemed his unique vision on all texts in the same manner. Afrim dissects, rearranges, and obliterates only when he feels that the source can stand the weight, and only when his audience is sufficiently informed to grasp a defiant and resistant reading. Afrim directed German playwright Tankred Dorst's Herr Paul (1994) at the 2010 Sibiu International Theatre Festival in Sibiu, Romania. While it is an important post-socialist drama, Herr Paul is no Three Sisters. Afrim and his production team nonetheless found a way to articulate the drama's conflict by using a style of acting that was equal parts biomechanics and naturalism, and a scenographic environment that blended avant-garde—particularly surrealist and expressionist—styles. In a sense, he contextualized his production of Herr Paul by very nearly suffocating it with echoes of an entire history of European artistic trends, movements, and manifestoes.

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Andrea Gavriliu (Anita) in Herr Paul.

(Photo: Mihaela Jipa.)

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Cezar Antal (Herr Paul) in Herr Paul.

(Photo: Mihaela Jipa.)

Set in unified Germany in the early 1990s, the play's main characters are Herr Paul (Cezar Antal), viewed by outsiders as a superfluous man who lives wholly in the past in an abandoned soap factory; his sister Luise (Lucretia Mandric); and an idealistic interloper, Helm (Matei Rotaru), the symbol of a post-socialist Germany. Echoing Dürrenmatt's The Visit, Dorst's narrative moves from the daily life of the brother and sister to an attempt by Helm to obtain Paul's signature so that he may demolish the old factory and make everyone rich in the process. Helm regards the brother and sister as vestiges of an obsolete way of life, but Herr Paul and Luise, despite their quirky routines, such as welcoming each day with a ritualistic greeting of their stuffed fox, are not easily persuaded by his argument.

The "postmodern perversity," spoken of pejoratively by Billington, was evident in Afrim's direction, perhaps most tellingly in performances by [End Page 115] actors Antal and Mandric. Their characters signify a Germany that is no more, but that still remains fixed in the memories of two generations. Rather than opting for a wistful, stylistically realistic interpretation of these two kindly souls, the actors exaggerated their physicality, choosing what Meyerhold might have called a "dynamic" approach to character interpretation. Before speaking, the actors sometimes emitted screeching sounds or stared silently. Contorting their bodies this way and that before uttering a line of dialogue, Antal and Mandric deliberately kept us from easy empathy with their characters' plights. Initially, they moved almost as if they were great, gaudy marionettes being manipulated by an invisible puppeteer. When juxtaposed against the deadening conformity of the younger, upwardly mobile characters, all of whom walked, dressed, and spoke alike, Herr Paul and Luise became almost noble via their vocal and physical eccentricities. In this context, Herr Paul read onstage as a parable about German Ostalgie, the nostalgic feelings for a time before reunification. The pragmatic Helm resorts to violence in order to obtain the signature he needs, thereby confirming this impression. He murders Herr Paul, but Paul resurrects himself, proclaiming, "I am a free man!" He and his sister have conquered Helm's greed and the capitalist ethos.

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pp. 115-116
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