The Conquest of the South Pole ~ theatre notes

Monday, October 25, 2004

The Conquest of the South Pole

The Conquest of the South Pole by Manfred Karge, directed by Todd Macdonald, designed by Luke Pither. Performed by Paul Denny, Damien Donovan, Josh Hewitt, James Saunders, Anita Hegh, Julie Eckersley, Mark Hennessy. Instorage at The Store Room, until October 31.

Good theatre writing often has an air of indestructibility, as if it could survive almost anything. I recently saw a school production of Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children which traversed all the categories of naive acting, from sheer raw talent to squeaks of stage fright: Brecht survived the lot. It's even possible that in some ways the rough treatment made the language shine more brightly, like a stone in a polisher.

The Conquest of the South Pole is tough theatrical poetry at its best. From the moment it begins, the language picks you up by the scruff of the neck and drags you head-first into the play. This is because Manfred Karge is part of a Brechtian tradition of theatre which has not divorced itself, as has most English-language theatre, from the living traditions of poetry. Brecht is as great a poet as he is a playwright and, in Germany at least, his poetic legacy is as strong as his political influence.

Like his colleague Heiner Muller, Manfred Karge is a product of the Berliner Ensemble, the company Brecht and Helene Weigel began in 1949 and which has negotiated many changes, including the chaos of reunification. Karge began at the Berliner Ensemble as a young director in the 1970s, when Germany was still divided, and he still works there. He places himself squarely in the Brechtian tradition of political critique: it's a dialectic position perhaps best exemplified by Muller, who was at once Brecht's most loyal heir and fiercest critic.

The poetic in Karge's play is immediate, a lyrical attention to rhythm and sound and repetition which roots itself firmly in the vitality of vernacular language. This is much more than a decorative effect: as its first English translators, Tinch Minter and Anthony Vivis, said: "Much of the vocabulary in The Conquest of the South Pole would not appear in a standard German dictionary. ... Often, the characters' attempts to hold on to their individuality is expressed in wordplay, or through references beyond their immediate experience: myth, fairytale, historical event or quotation." Which is to say, the poetry itself is a means of resistance and recuperation against impersonal historical or economic forces.

The Conquest of the South Pole was written in 1986, three years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and concerns itself with the soul-eroding problems of endemic unemployment. The play is about four young men in a small German town, who stave off the despair of joblessness by re-enacting Amundsen's expedition to the South Pole in an attic. It's a kind of kitchen sink epic; except by implication, there are no structural attacks on capitalism, and it is set wholly in a claustrophobic domestic sphere.

When Slupianek (Paul Denny) and his two mates Buscher (Damien Donovan) and Braukmann (James Saunders) come home to find their friend Seiffert (Josh Hewitt) about to hang himself, Slupianek proposes a "fairy tale" as an antidote to the rhythm of "pinball and schnapps" that is slowly killing them: Amundsen's conquest of the South Pole.

And thus begins a heroic journey, both Amundsen's (as read from a book) and that of the young men and their friends. The polar ice becomes a metaphor for their struggle against a pitiless system which leaves them, despite their desperate desire to work, both without a job, and carrying the blame for their own unemployment. Slupianek's appropriation of Amundsen's triumph over the South Pole is his means of recuperating his dignity.

This is not, however, merely a story of triumph and hope through imaginative resource, but a rather more complex fable of resistance and inevitable failure. Buscher, the realist to Slupianek's idealist, rebels against Slupianek's leadership, claiming that the real metaphor for their situation is Shackleton's disastrous expedition:

"It's not triumphs we need to act out, friends, not triumphs," he says. "We do failures better, they're our staple diet. Every trip to the job centre is a failure. Every phone call about a job ad is a failure. Opening so many doors you polish the knobs. Every refusal a failure...Human beings are just one big failure. And so the failure must go on and on for ever and ever, a hundred times, a thousand times, until we're all sick to death. It's only when you're up to your eyes in shit, desperately gasping for air, and the thinnest current of air is getting thinner and thinner, when you're really on your last legs, then the vomit might rise so high in your throat that you lash out mercilessly in all directions. Then, Slupianek, we wouldn't just be shooting a few dogs..."

As Buscher recognises, an imaginary triumph remains, after all, only imaginary. Once the South Pole is conquered, it's still the South Pole. These young men remain lost in the wastelands of the dole office or their dead-end jobs; whether employed or unemployed, they are still victims of their lowly status in the economic food chain in a blindly consumerist society. Braukmann's wife (Anita Hegh), speaking of her day at work in a fish and chip shop, observes: "People go on guzzling. They moan, but they keep on guzzling...They're chockful of misery, and choking as they guzzle...The smoke from the stall gets in my eyes, gets in my lungs, and even gets in my heart."

Under Todd Macdonald's clear and precise direction, the play rings loud and true. Luke Pither's design reverses the claustrophobic space of the Store Room, so the audience enters the theatre through a small room strewn with the detritus of depressive living - take away containers, a flickering television, empty bottles of beer - where the actors are lounging aimlessly. The stage itself is a stylised ice floe, which transforms into an attic or a kitchen as the play slides between different realities.

However, the emphasis of this production falls, rightly I think, on the writing and performances. Macdonald has cast well, and makes the most of it. Paul Denny plays the charismatic Slupianek with an increasing poignancy and despair, giving the performance of the night: but the text is well served by everyone in the production. Perhaps it's as true to say that the actors are well-served by the script; its linguistic demands give them, perversely, a chance to explore some emotional freedoms. It's a play rarely done here - to my knowledge, it was last done around 15 years ago at Belvoir Street - and it is well worth the revisiting. Karge's restless questions are as pertinent now, in our restructured days of casual, insecure employment, as they were in 1980s West Germany or Thatcher's Britain.

Picture: Paul Denny, Damien Donovan, Josh Hewitt and James Saunders in The Conquest of the South Pole

The Store Room

No comments: