Review: Verkommenes Ufer

VERKOMMENES UFER MEDEAMATERIAL LANDSCHAFT MIT ARGONAUTEN / Mommsens Block by Heiner Müller, at the Kammerspiele of the Deutsches Theater
Director: Dimiter Gotscheff
Design: Mark Lammert
Sound:  Martin Person

Photo: Arno Declair

The three actors poke their heads through a door in the industrial-looking wall that obscures the stage from the audience’s view. They smile, disappear, and the wall is raised, revealing … nothing. We can see empty revolve stage encircled by a black cyclorama, which is then released, and seems to fall from the flies forever before it finally reaches the ground, revealing … more nothing. The mechanics of the stage are laid bare. Four huge holes in the revolve also provide tantalising glimpses of the machinery beneath. Massive lanterns hang low on the stage and are slowly pulled up and out of sight. For the first 5 minutes, the stage itself is the performance, and it’s pretty exciting. Anything could happen.

A woman in black, with bright yellow shoes, strides across the stage and crouches at the back. We wait. Finally, a man, topless with twenty ties tucked into his trousers, bright red shoes, emerges from the central trap in the stage, hanging on for dear life to a long yellow pole. A bizarre clown act follows, in which he evolves from whimpering baby to violent Müller-man, via lusty neanderthal. At one point the third actor, another woman in black, bright blue shoes, walks across the stage looking vaguely confused. I know how she feels – although that’s not to say I’m not enjoying it so far.

Red shoes leaves us, and yellow shoes takes over. Specifically yellow high heels. Almut Zilcher performs the whole of MEDEAMATERIAL as a monologue, taking on a different physicality as she answers her own questions and making Medea’s sanity even more questionable than it already was. It’s an engrossing performance forced into a cage  – you would think that even without a set, having the whole stage to play with would be enough for an exciting exploration of a woman’s suffering. But thanks to the giant holes in the set (which remain tantalising, unused) and the giant yellow heels and uptight black trouser suit, our Medea can hardly move. Personally I wouldn’t have minded if she had tripped, or ripped her jacket, but it seemed that this was out of the question. She must remain pristine. The limitations on the performance were tangible, there were only so many moves she could do; she must have turned from centre to walk upstage and then abruptly turned back at least 7 times. What started out so promising soon became boring – despite strong acting I began to hope with each turn that this time she wouldn’t come back.

Next we had red shoes again, appearing from the back of the auditorium and walking through the audience shedding ties (and eventually even the shoes) for no obvious reason as he performed Landschaft mit Argonauten. Occasionally the revolve stage turned a few degrees and then back again. For no obvious reason. Snatches of Müller’s monologue mosaic rang out, and references to theatre and acting (“Das Theater meines Todes” – “The theatre of my death”) worked well on the bare stage thanks to Wolfram Koch’s powerful presence.

The three actors performed Verkommenes Ufer in unison, rendering it somewhat incomprensible. What upset me even more was the shoe situation – there was no chance of finally having that visual effect, the primary colours parade of all the shoes coming together, because of Koch’s constant and inexplicable undressing in the previous scene. Then, with a thumb press (German finger-crossing) from her fellow actors, blue shoes took over the stage with Mommsens Block. Written many years after the other pieces, this was Gottscheff’s own addition to the Müller programme. Margit Bendokat did a great job. But with no set, limited space thanks to those unused holes, no lighting or sound design to speak of, and arbitrary costume decisions, this production ultimately relied completely on the excellent performances of Bendokat and her fellow cast members. Unfortunately this alone wasn’t enough to stop me from checking my watch a little too frequently.

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