Akademietheater in Wien recently put on Elfriede Jelinek’s “Schatten (Eurydike sagt)”, a grandiose production with a large number of Eurydikes in various stages of life and well-being, alternating in Jelinek’s endless tirades, repetitions and Thomas Bernhardesque garlands. The special effect of Jelinek’s rendition of the ancient Orpheus and Eurydike saga is a complete turnaround of the story, in the way that Eurydike refuses to follow Orpheus back into the world from the realm of shadows, because she prefers their company to that of the buffoon-like, pop-star acting Orpheus. While in the Greek fable, the singer Orpheus follows the deceased Eurydike across Styx into the underworld, and is promised to bring her back to life and earth, if he manages to lead her back without turning round to look at her. He does not succeed, and she dies. Jelinek makes a tremendous success in both her language and the change in the story to talk about sexual repression, male domination – and female rejection of these values.
Uncle Wanja by Chechov, again in the Akademietheater, combines both excellent acting by some of Vienna’s beloved acting stars with Chechov’s morbid sense of being lost in the Russian countryside, with glimpses of hope by the arrival of the beautiful Professor’s wife of Wanja and the alcoholic doctor, and the absolute arrogance and egotistical behavior of the Professor who is only concerned about his own health, wellbeing – at the expense of everybody else. The desolation of Wanja’s niece, who is secretely but unsuccessfully in love with the doctor, the dashed hopes of Wanja and the doting adoration of the Professor by Wanja’s mother – all this is put on stage in an excellent production. Still, with all the morbidity and hopelessness around, the play does not leave one without any hope.
This is very different from Ibsen’s “Ghosts” (Gespenster), where all hope is lost. On a stage full of dust, cobwebs and covered furniture, absolute weakness of character, hopelessness of love and life, get the best of the audience. Once more, grandiose acting makes the utter hopelessness of the protagonists lives, the inability to accept the (unpleasant) past, the unwillingness to overcome history and start a new life, come to life – and leave the spectator in complete depression. All this is theatre at the highest level, but sometimes one wishes to see something a bit more uplifting.
Uplift was also not provided by Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Commune”, a slightly silly play on a Danish commune, which to a large extent plays on the prurience of the petit-bourgeois spectators in the face of fights among the communards about dishwashing, allocating beer purchases, etc. The adulterous relationship of the main protagonist with a new member of the commune, his proposal to his loving wife of 20 years to live as a happy threesome, the taking sides by the other communards (mainly in favor of the adulterous male), the desolation of the unhappy couple’s teenage daughter about having to decide between her parents – all this also does not make for a happy ending, but once more, good staging and acting of a bad play.
Finally, the desired uplift was provided by London’s Arcola Theatre with a staging of Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick”. This was timely, since for weeks I had been laboring through the 800 pages of Melvilles frequently annoying epos. Annoying, because at least 400 pages are devoted to minute biological details of the various whale species, of lengthy c onsiderations of Ishmael”s, the narrators, literary and historical knowledge, and only the rest to the story. Arcola has just a few wooden boards as props, but uses them to great effect, uses non-Melville Shanties to increase the tension and manages to bring the major storylines to an astonishingly vivid life. Of course, 1 ½ hours of staging does not portray each page of the book – thanks to the director. Captain Ahab’s monomaniacal vengeance pursuit of the White Whale, which years ago took off his leg, at the expense of regular whaling business, of minimal social relations with the few encountering boats (of this more than 3-year voyage) and the characters of the first mate and the New Zealander harponeer Queequeg, all this makes for a great story. The horrible end, where the whaling boat with Captain Ahab is swallowed by the whale, after it has done away with the full whaling ship, is done in a most surprising and effective way: the horrified gazes of the 5 crew upwards towards to open gigantic mouth of the monster give the audiences all they need to feel this catastrophe.