Review: A Woman in Berlin, Irony Is Not Enough, The Tell-Tale Heart ~ theatre notes

Monday, November 22, 2010

Review: A Woman in Berlin, Irony Is Not Enough, The Tell-Tale Heart

I saw three astonishing works of theatre last week, all created from texts not originally intended for the stage. One, A Woman in Berlin, is based on a personal memoir of the Russian occupation of Berlin at the end of World War 2. Another was Fragment 31's Irony is Not Enough: Essay on my Life as Catherine Deneuve, a poem by Canadian poet and scholar Anne Carson. The poem wasn't so much adapted - the collaborators performed the work as written - but "translated" into a fascinating work of theatre. The third was Barrie Kosky's terrifyingly beautiful The Tell-Tale Heart, an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's gothic story about a murderer's self-betrayal.

Unsurprisingly given the source material, each work is markedly different from the others. All the same, they each have something profound in common: none assumes that either language or theatre is transparent. And in transforming a written work into performance, they reveal something profound about writing itself.

All writing is a dance around absence. A text notates something that isn't present, and perhaps was never present; it enacts the magic of revelation, of making visible what is invisible. Writing is memory, imagination, thought, made manifest: it gives what is otherwise unseen and intangible an illusory solidity. It is a record of an act - the act of writing - that generates its meaning once the act is finished, once the text is written and can be read.

What is most crucially absent from the written word is the body itself. A body makes a text, a body reads it, a body imagines and responds; but the text itself is bodiless. Without flesh and nerves or organs, boneless and hairless, a text is merely marks on a page or a screen or a wall: it's a trace of something, not any thing itself. The fetish of book design, focusing on the book as object, conceals the evanescence of text with an appearance of permanence: yet the object remains obdurately silent, its meanings dormant, until the immediate moment in which it is read.

When a text enters the theatre, the body is pushed into its foreground: both performer and audience are present. The performer's body is mediated: it's a body shaped by language, that now in turn interrogates and transforms the text. Sensitive adaptations or translations understand this recouped embodiment as the primary gift of theatre: the performer is the presence through which meaning is animated. And this meaning, whatever it is, in turn becomes memory, a potential text carried in the bodies of the audience. Sometimes it seems that the whole of human communication exists in this constant transformation from one state to another and back again: from revelation to hiddenness, from object to subject, from the intangible to the palpable. One reason I find theatre so fascinating is that it makes these transformations impossible to ignore.

The three works I saw all place the body in the centre of performance, exposing it as a site of trauma. Here language fragments under the pressure of its enactment. The performer's body - ambiguous, carnal, paradoxically private - is the focus of attention as the bodily absence hidden in the writing spills into an excess of presence. In performance, these texts are thickened and made opaque by what language is unable, finally, to express: the tactility of pain and desire, the incorrigibility of physical experience.

The performer is a complex presence that cannot easily claim its own authenticity. He or she offers a re-presencing, an enacted present of an imagined past. Yet this representation can't dissolve either into sheer abstraction. It is immanent with its own authenticating physicality: the actor's sweat, the actor's voice vibrating in the same air the audience is breathing, the sense of bodily duration. In all truthful theatre, the performer's enactment carries a double knowledge: the body both represents and is; the actor is both herself and someone else. The mask is real.


To claim that A Woman in Berlin is a confronting text is to state the obvious. To begin with, it's a personal memoir, a vexed form that often sparks fierce battles about its authenticity. A diary of two months of the Russian occupation of Berlin in 1945, it gives a detailed first-hand account of the experiences of a young, "well brought up" woman attempting to survive in the city in the final days of World War 2. It is, above all, a dispassionate account of survival - pages are devoted to the urgent task of finding enough food and fuel to sustain life. But the most sensational - and deeply contested - aspect of the book is its account of rape by the Russian troops.

Historians give differing estimates of how many women were raped during the occupation - some say at least 100,000, others say up to two million. The troops that arrived were bent on revenge. Hitler's invasion of Russia is generally agreed to be the bloodiest war in history; by the end of World War 2, 30 million people had been killed on the Eastern Front. The orgy of destruction that took place in Berlin was one of the final atrocities of the war.

The anonymous author was named in 2003 by literary critic Jens Bisky as Marta Hillers, an educated and well-travelled journalist who had written some small-time propaganda for the Nazis, but was probably not a member of the party herself. She was in her early 30s when the Russian stormed Berlin. The book was initially released in 1954, when there was little interest in Germany (or elsewhere) in examining the suffering of Germans, the aggressors in history's most ruinous war; and the author herself refused to republish it. But in the early years of this decade, there was renewed interest: publications such as W.G. Sebald's A Natural History of Destruction, or Anthony Beevor's The Fall of Berlin, began to expose a history that had been hidden by shame or trauma.

Unsurprisingly, rape is the centre of the book's controversy. Anonymous's account - especially her semi-romantic, almost tender relationship with a Russian major, with its hints of treacherous collaboration with the enemy - was considered to have smirched the honour of German women, and the truthfulness or otherwise of the book has been fiercely contested. It's a text with literary qualities by a clearly literate woman; the original writings were retyped and expanded for publication. Paradoxically, the more literary it appeared, the less reliable it was assumed to be. The poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger, who republished it in 2000, demanded that it be seen as a strictly documentary source, a work of absolute historical truth, and historian Anthony Beevor validates its historical authenticity.

For all that, perhaps the most illuminating analysis is of the book as a literary work, because that is how it represents itself, complete with a epigraph from A Winter's Tale. Above all, the diary recounts the struggle to survive as an entire world is destroyed: a city breaks down under war, cutting off food supplies, electricity, all public services; and with it comes the collapse of all moral and social certainty. The most graphic symptom of that collapse is the transformation of the women in the book into into casual sexual prey.

The book is in part not just about rape, but its representation. "What does it mean—rape?," Anonymous asks herself. "When I said the word for the first time aloud ... it sent shivers down my spine. Now I can think it and write it with an untrembling hand, say it out loud to get used to hearing it said. It sounds like the absolute worst, the end of everything—but it’s not." The women in the book, and even the soldiers who rape them, whose relatives had been raped by Germans, oscillate between an understanding of rape as "worse than death" and a brutalised jokiness that is perhaps more confronting than any other aspect of the book. Anonymous's dispassionate observations make the line between victim and aggressor extremely unstable: at one point she even claims that Berlin's ordeal "balanced an account", extracting from the Germans some of the suffering they had dealt others.

Given these complexities, it would be misleading and reductive to present this text as a simple story of victimhood. It would be even more perilous to assume an immediate empathy with this young woman and the atrocities she suffered and witnessed; that would risk a kind of emotional pornography, an exploitative sensationalism. Instead, just as the diary is a literary imagining of real events, director Janice Muller and performer Meredith Penman frame A Woman in Berlin consciously as a work of art. Penman's performance permits us to witness an act of imaginative identification that shifts from the present to an evocation of the past.

The set appears to be an exhibition about the conquest of Berlin, with text and mementos on the white walls and a gallery bench in the centre. A young contemporary woman enters, wandering casually from item to item. She idly presses a button and listens to an audio in German. She earnestly contemplates a picture. She is any of us, peering from the outside into an atrocity we can barely understand. Then she drops her leather jacket, and her dress is subtly changed: she is no longer of the 21st century. She begins to speak extracts from the diary.

This is an extraordinarily powerful performance. Much of its power emerges from its intelligent restraint: it is only when it finishes that its trauma really registers. Penman presents a woman brutalised by her experience, not only of rape, but of the bare struggle to survive; the self she once knew - cultured, middle class, safe - splinters under the deprivations of war. She witnesses and reports, not only on what she sees, but on her own feelings: her observing, writing self is the single coherent element of a world reduced to madness.

In the end, all that matters is that she lives. Her survival is not triumphant, but a bitter, self-knowing will that recognises the shame of "naked life", as all the markers of civilisation are stripped away to a bare play of power: an animal instinct that overpowers every other consideration. We know that knowledge is now imprinted on her body and will never be undone: it is now part of who she is.

Then, just as the audience does, Penman transforms back into the young contemporary woman, picks up her jacket and walks out of the gallery.


"Irony is a mask," says Anne Carson in her poem Irony is Not Enough: Essay On My Life As Catherine Deneuve. "The problem is that we become the mask". It's an understanding of the paradox of performance that perhaps explains why Carson's work, intentionally or not, so often enters the theatre: in 2003, this particular poem also formed part of the basis for a dance/theatre work by William Forsythe, Kammer/Kammer.

Fragment 31's production is a brilliant collaboration between some of our most interesting theatre artists: performers Luke Mullins and Leisa Shelton, designer Anna Cordingley, composer Jethro Woodward and lighting designer Jenny Hector. In their rendition, the poem is presented unchanged: as they explain in the program, "to edit, re-write or change in any way the writing of Anne Carson is to defeat the purpose of choosing this writer and her work as the source material".

This signals what could potentially be an inhibiting reverence for the text. But this profoundly intelligent collaboration avoids fetishising the text, instead opening up its complexities into a parallel essay about fetish, the irrational displacement of desire. The poem's fragmented narrative is refracted through an equally fragmented performance, in which the component parts of theatre - design, sound, staging, performance and text - become fluid constructions that are made and unmade before our eyes.

When we enter the theatre, we seem to be entering a workshop: there are tables covered with technical equipment, and parts of set are still being dressed. The designer is kneeling on the floor, working on a design detail with tape and a box-cutter; the performers are leafing through files of script, checking the pages are all there, the sound designer is testing levels. There is an air of industry and preparatory concentration. Once the audience is seated, Leisa Shelton sits down with a businesslike air at a desk at the very front, only feet away from the audience. Darkness pulls in around her, a single light on her face. She says the first words of the poem: "Je commence". And so it does.

Most of the poem is spoken by Luke Mullins, with interruptions of pre-recorded text and dialogic lines spoken by Shelton. The writerly self, which seems a binding unity in the text despite its fragmentations, is immediately split and mediated. Carson's exact language is full of raw spaces, caesurae which electrically shift the speaker's realities. She is a classics lecturer suddenly pierced with desire for one of her students ("Knife of boy. Knife of girl.") Burned by this impossible desire, she imagines herself as Catherine Deneuve. She speaks of herself in the third person in one sentence, in the first in the next. She enacts the repetitions of traumatic desire in a cityscape chilly with snow.

Desire is traumatic, as Carson says, because it is felt as a disintegration of the known self. It can only be experienced as fragmentation. In response, Fragment 31 takes apart the supposed coherence of theatre: they present a series of contingent unities, theatrical images that collapse back upon themselves. Shelton dons a blonde wig and becomes Catherine Deneuve behind a table of telephones in a miniature set that mimics a bourgeois Parisian apartment: she does not answer the insistently ringing phone, but it is answered nevertheless. The designers focus a light on her, rearrange her clothes. They hold an empty black frame in front of her hand or her foot, so we might examine the parts of her body, adorned by a bracelet, a shoe, as if they are a close-up in a film. They hand Mullins a microphone, and he speaks into it.

The tableau collapses. The stage returns to a raw state of preparedness, and then is remade as something else. These pauses begin to generate a particular electricity: we are continually reminded that this is a performance, that it is an artifice. A poem, said Marianne Moore, is "an imaginary garden with real toads in it": what is real here is the articulation of feeling. Once or twice we seem to see the performers stripped of any mask at all. They stand in front of the audience at a momentary loss, and the entire pretence briefly dissolves into a larger understanding of our own implication in this anxiety, this painfulness and loss. All this occurs with an delicate and precise attention to rhythm - not merely the rhythms of Carson's language, but the breath of the stage, how it contracts and expands in the light, how the performers inhabit or leave a space.

And then, quite suddenly, we are at the end of the poem, and the work is finished. Blackout.


I had forgotten the sheer brilliance of Barrie Kosky's The Tell-Tale Heart. This was my second viewing: I saw it in 2007, when it was staged in the Malthouse workshop as part of the Melbourne Festival. Here Kosky's production is remounted by Michael Kantor in the Merlyn Theatre, with Michael Kieran Harvey taking Kosky's place on the piano.

Edgar Allan Poe's story is a famous parable of the self-betrayal of guilt. Its nameless narrator suffers from a disease that has resulted in a morbid over-sensitivity, which drives him to murder an old man, perhaps his father, with whom he lives. The murder, he explains, is necessary, even though he felt no animus towards his victim. Rather, the reverse - "I loved the old man. He had never wronged me... I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture - a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees - very gradually - I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever."

The murder might be an act of madness, but it is not irrational - as the narrator points out, he is extremely logical, and plans his crime meticulously. Poe's anti-hero is perhaps an extreme case of hyper-rationality, of a logic devoid of the wider considerations of felt reason: the perception of the whole is obliterated by a single anguished act of cognition, from which all else follows. He never explains why the old man's eye is so dreadful to him: it is enough that it is predatory and veiled, an inhuman organ. What he doesn't say is that the eye looks back at him. Perhaps what is most unbearable to the murderer is what it sees, or what he thinks it sees.

In this performance, The Tell-Tale Heart is a single act of theatre, as cleanly achieved as a knife: there is absolutely nothing extraneous, nothing that is not needful. It begins as the auditorium lights gradually fade on the sumptuous red curtain that veils the stage. We sit for what seems like a long time in total darkness and silence: there is the faint sound of the curtains opening, but otherwise nothing.

Then, so suddenly that it made me jump, there blares out a jazz era song which is, in its bright brashness, an assault, and a single spotlight illuminates a tiny object in the vast blackness. At first it seems as if might be a trick of the eye, but gradually you see that it is a face, or half a face: a mask. The spotlight shifts like a voyeur, exposing first one side of the face and then another, until at last there is the whole head, suspended in the darkness. It looks like the face of a corpse, or a ghost: tonight we will listen to the dead.

Martin Niedermair speaks thickly, as if his lips are decaying, as if the words must be imagined and created before he can utter them. He stops and starts unpredictably, distorting the shapes of sentences; at one point the struggle to speak reduces him to mere slavering. It's an extraordinary performance, in which the human body becomes itself a thing of shadow, opaque, mysterious and sinister. Even the boundaries of his body are questionable: by shaking his head rapidly from right to left, Niedemair blurs our vision and briefly becomes a living sculpture by Francis Bacon, a two-headed, anguished monster.

Paul Jackson's lighting is miraculous: he doesn't so much design light as sculpt the darkness. As the lights widen around Niedermair, they reveal the single feature of Anna Tregloan's set: a vertiginous staircase, bereft of banisters, floats in the darkness, stretching right up to the roof of the theatre. It's so steep that it's impossible not to fear that Niedermair might fall off: it's a tension that screws up with the narrative, until he is revealed lying impossibly upside down, as if he has indeed fallen, singing of his yearning for a love that he has himself murdered.

In the controlled environs of the Merlyn, this production has a feeling of absolute precision. Harvey's exquisite renditions of Bach and Purcell bring a new and aching loveliness to the performance, drawing out the palpable tensions between beauty and repulsion that drive this production. But there are more pragmatic reasons too: the blackouts occur, for example, without the distraction of ushers holding up boards to conceal the exit signs. It is, quite simply, one of the best works of theatre I have ever seen.

Pictures: Top: Meredith Penman in A Woman in Berlin. Photo: Andy Baker. Bottom: Martin Niedemair in The Tell-Tale Heart. Photo: Jeff Busby

A Woman in Berlin, by Anonymous, adapted by Jancie Muller and Meredith Penman, directed by Janice Muller. Set and costume design by Gabrille Logan, lighting by Matt Cox, sound design by Russell Goldsmith. Performed by Meredith Penman. Tower Theatre, the Malthouse, until November 28.

Irony Is Not Enough: Essay On My Life As Catherine Deneuve
, by Anne Carson. Created by Anna Cordingley, Jenny Hector, Luke Mullins, Leisa Shelton and Jethro Woodward. North Melbourne Arts House. Closed.

The Tell-Tale Heart, after Edgar Allan Poe, directed by Barrie Kosky. Return season directed by Michael Kantor. Design adaptation: Anna Tregloan (set and costumes) and Paul Jackson (lighting). Performed by Martin Niedermair. Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse, until December 2.


Anonymous said...

hello, does anyone know what the second piece of live piano music was in The Telltale Heart? I is very much liked it very much so. Thank you.

Alison Croggon said...

I'm not sure. Certainly the songs are credited to Bach, Purcell and Hugo Young, but I know Kosky wrote some of that music himself.

Anonymous said...

Hugo Wolf's Verboreheit maybe was second, or the second time he climbed the stair?

I know I already told you, but this really is a dash'dly good read, Alison.

Alison Croggon said...

Why, thank you, dearest AF. I can't tell you how cross I was, in my present state of disintegration, when I realised that this was what I wanted to write...

Anonymous said...

Hugo Wolf's Verboreheit?

But this composer isn't credited... me confused (or somehow ignoramus of such things as alternate names/unquoted source material/some other terrible conspiracy/etc).

A quick google translate does tell me however that Verboreheit cannot come up with anything. But a quick referencing of google, suggests Verborgeneheit: which translates to 'seclusion'. Some other bright spark website suggests it could also be 'withdrawal'.

All I know is that luxhotel translates to luxury hotel and a certain European friend wants to know if I have sex on the beach. I am not sure - owing to the vagaries of texting in different languages - whether this means the cocktail or the cock tale.

Chris Boyd said...

?! Wolf is credited, anon, along with Purcell and Bach. (Lerner and Loewe don't get a mention though.)

The Bach was the Agnus Dei, no? And the Purcell was his setting of Dryden's 'Music for a while' from Oedipus.

too too spooky: the word verification is alecto... what are the odds? Zillions...

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Chris. My music nerdiness is patchy at best... and yes, Wolf is definitely credited in the program.

Anonymous said...

danke schon mein herr :)