Review: Die Winterreise, Undine ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Review: Die Winterreise, Undine

For the first ten minutes or so, I was completely transfixed by Matthew Lutton's theatrical extrapolation of Schubert's late song cycle, Die Winterreise. It is a beautiful idea: the juxtaposition of some of Schubert's most sublime lieder with the experience of a man listening to them in the most mundane of settings. Die Winterreise, set to a poem cycle by Wilhelm Müller, is one of the most emotionally potent works of the Romantic era: its stripped simplicity, lone voice and piano, exposes a raw nerve of feeling which has never dated.

The production begins with the audience looking into profound darkness: it's a black curtain which absorbs all light. This opens to reveal Adam Gardnir's set, a room of astounding shabbiness, recreated in every hyper-real detail, on what is clearly a stiflingly hot summer day. It's a loungeroom dating from about the 1960s, with sliding glass doors at the back, sash windows on either side, a galley kitchen. The walls are moldy, the windows opaque with filth. It speaks of neglect and loneliness: every object, from the lamps to the fan to the kitchen, is old, mismatched, falling apart.

An old man (George Shevtsov) is cooking his dinner, and we can smell the onions frying. The sounds of chopping are amplified, and we begin to understand that this is a subjective reality. He fussily arranges a lace cloth on the table, and puts a vinyl on his stereo. Through the crackles, we hear it is a recording of Schubert. Outside the sliding doors is another kind of space altogether: a continual shower of green foil suggests this is an imagined place. It's a potent image; even if shiny foil is practically copyrighted by Benedict Andrews, and perilous to use, this creates an immediate frisson of strangeness.

A man (Paul Capsis) suddenly appears outside the doors like a ghost and enters the room. Then another (pianist Alister Spence) and, later, another (dancer James O'Hara). As live performance overtakes the recording, Capsis sings the first of the songs while Shevtsov goes about his domestic business. And so the excavation of memory and grief begins.

The danger of directly invoking emotion is, of course, that it can veer into sentimentality, which is the crude obscuring of feeling, rather than its articulation. Die Winterreise, for all its notation of a young man's hopeless love and his subsequent wanderings through a winter landscape, is far from a sentimental work. Alas, this can't be said of Lutton's production, which topples headlong into the trap.

I think the problem begins with the conception: why make this work, so much a young man's composition (it was written shortly before Schubert died at the age of 31) an exploration of old age? We are given a parallel narrative which ends up grasping at the obvious: the mundane and potentially profound experiences of aging and loneliness are explained for us as past trauma. If the production had found the balance between emotional extremity and simple ordinariness of Müller's poems, it might have been riveting: I'm thinking here of something like the devastating simplicity of Franz Xaver Kroetz's short play Request Concert. But that would have required a steady gaze.

For all its musical drama, Die Winterreise is not a dramatic work, and you can't but feel that Lutton overcompensates. On stage, the drama is provided by three earlier selves summoned by the music, each expressive in different artforms: music, song and dance. As is my wont, I'd not read the director's note beforehand, and I found this very unclear: following the lyrics of the songs, I was under the impression for much of the show that the dancer (James O'Hara) was a former lover, rather than a former self. At another point, I thought that Shevtsov was dying of a heart attack. Which would have been okay, except that he wasn't, and I was forced to conclude that he was having some kind of melodramatic crisis instead.

Chrissie Parrot's choreography, however beautifully danced, mostly felt unintegrated with the rest of the production, except in one sequence that shifted from its earlier enactments of neurotic physicalities to a more lyrical expression. One of the more puzzling aspects is Capsis's performance. He sang two of these songs for Barrie Kosky's production of The Lost Echo (and recorded Irrlicht for his album Everybody Wants to Touch Me). I've seen him perform Schubert live before, and can attest to the electric power he can bring to this music. Yet here he seems physically and vocally lost and, despite their being sung in English, the songs lose some of their resonance. Although I confess Capsis's rendition of Irrlicht (Will o'the Wisp), in which the singer declares that all sorrows have an end, still left me in tears.

Perhaps the worst misjudgment is the introduction of an explanatory text, written by Tom Holloway, just before the end. Here the emotional hamfistedness of the production becomes very clear indeed. This monologue lets us in on the story that has informed the previous actions; it is (of course) a traumatic experience of loss, probably during Word War 2, probably in Germany. Suddenly Die Winterreise is enclosed in literalism, which shuts down its emotional openness and metaphorical resonance.

All these seem to me to be errors of feeling, a lack of the emotional accuracy which makes Schubert's songs so powerful. And it's made the more egregious by the promise this show holds. All aspects of its design - lighting, sound design, set - are superb. There are moments of real beauty: perhaps the most striking is when snow that is falling outside, invoking the winter journey of the songs, begins to fall inside the house. But the whole is much less than the sum of its parts.

If you want to see contemporary Romanticism at work in the theatre, you're better off scoring a ticket to Undine, the latest show by those resolutely indie theatre makers Four Larks. This takes place in a big back shed in Brunswick, not far from Moreland Station: you meet at a designated street corner before you are guided through an alleyway to the back of a house, where you are served mulled wine. Which, on the wintry night I attended, was mighty welcome.

Like Die Winterreise, Undine is show driven by music. It draws on a plethora of folk tales and literature which tells of a man falling in love with a water spirit, a theme drawn on by writers from Friedrich de la Motte Fouque (who wrote the major inspiration behind this show) to Hans Christian Anderson to Oscar Wilde. Here an unnamed composer - who is played by three actors (Ben Pfeiffer, Luke Jacka and Paul Bourke) - finds a mute, half-drowned woman (Karen Sibbing) by the edge of the sea, and brings her home. They fall in love, and so the stranger gains both a soul and a voice, until the composer's obsession with his music drives her back to the sea.

This simple story is delivered in a sensual avalanche of music and visuals. The set, designed by Sebastian Peters Lazaro and Ellen Strasser, is extraordinary: it's a detailed domestic interior festooned with pages of music, drenched in an amber light, through one wall of which we can see the band. There is, as one might expect liberal use of water, both as a sound and as a visual cue: it rains from the ceiling, it splashes out of baths and tubs.

The entire play is scored by writer and director Mat Diafos Sweeney (lyrics by co-director Jesse Rasmussen) and the text is delivered almost in the manner of song. The effect is rather as if one of Joanna Newsom's longer narrative songs were transformed into theatre: it has the same kind of tumbling, over the top imagery, the same heightened energy. There is even a harp. The show strikes an emotional pitch very early on and maintains it all the way through, with inventive staging (there's an extremely ingenious reveal) and concentrated performances.

If there's a criticism, it's in the show's uncritical acceptance of the Romantic feminine, the soulless elemental that at once inspires and destroys the male artist: you feel that work this intelligent ought to be a little more self aware. But that's a quibble after the fact. It's a signal step forward from the last production I saw, Peer Gynt, which had an air of theatrical naivety this one doesn't possess. It's exciting to see this company so confidently developing its own theatrical language. Certainly, no one in Melbourne is making theatre quite like this.

Die Winterreise, featuring songs by Franz Schubert, conceived and directed by Matt Lutton. Original text by Tom Holloway. Choreography by Chrissie Parrott, set and costumes by Adam Gardnir, original composition and sound design by Kelly Ryall, lighting design by Paul Jackson. With Paul Capsis, James O'Hara, George Shvtsov and Alister Spence. Malthouse Theatre and ThinIce, Merlyn Theatre until July 31.

Undine, written and directed by Mat Diafos Sweeney and Jesse Rasmussen, Movement direction by Sebastian Peter-Lazaro. Set by Sebastian Peters-Lazaro and Ellem Starsser, lighting feisng by Nicola Andrews and Tom Willis, costumes by Mallory Gross. Musicians: Adam Casey, Genevieve Fry, Caleb Latreille, Esala Liyonage, Prudence Rees-Lee, Lisa Salvo and Mat Diafos Sweeney. Performed by Ben Pfeiffer, Luke Jacka, Paul Bourke and Karen Sibbing. Singer: Linsday Cooper. Four Larks Theatre until July 30. Bookings: 0423 863 336.


Search for Daily Deals said...

I haven't seen this, but while I'm reading it, it really touch my heart I was completely transfixed by Matthew Lutton. Hope I can watch this play.

Search for Daily Deals said...

I haven't seen this, but while I'm reading it, it really touch my heart I was completely transfixed by Matthew Lutton. Hope I can watch this play.

Anonymous said...

Wow, that's Loebner Prize-winning contribution from SDD, almost.

It's an interesting suggestion, that there’s a lack of self awareness, but I don't necessarily agree that the 4Larks use the romantic feminine in an entirely uncritical way, although there's no doubt that they are well deep in their own romantic paradigm, with all those blood-and-cornflour sunsets and alabaster limbs. You see it especially in the portrayal of the artist's feverish search for ideal beauty and the emotional lurching from hope to despair then back to hope, but also, too, in the possible implication that the composer is ultimately destroyed in his search for his perfect song. All of this would be quite at home in an ETA Hoffmann tale, but I think you could also read it, as I did, as being essentially critical with regard to the feminine influence, even deconstructive. There is another narrative layer above that of the Romantic composer, one which runs counter to his hallucinating Hoffmann-ish writer's block, and that is the stranger's more mundane desire for love on a domestic scale.

She is not any sort of inscrutable pleni-sprite or divine muse and does not, in fact, give him the inspiration that he craves.
There is a critical stance, for example, in the selection of excerpts she chooses to read from Undine, which maybe is meant to indicate a very ordinary failure of will on the knight/artist's part. She is trying establish a small-r romantic relationship. He wants the capitalised version. There is something quite modern in this: if these two were in a Mamet play, instead of a 4Larks opera, on her way out she'd prolly tell the dumb shmuck to go fuck himself (The Woods ... on now at Owl&P).

The fact that their relationship set me thinking of David M prolly indicates that there are still plenty of gender issues, re their respective relationships to the creative process, that could be unpacked, but I don't think "uncritical" is exactly right.

I also thought it significant that the artist had to literally dismantle his garret and free himself from the romantic artifice of hermetic isolation before he could carry on in the search ...

Anonymous said...

Why can't everyone say that this is an extremely immature work by an immature artist? As usual, resourced beyond his means and everyone else's capacity. What bollocks.

Anonymous said...

PS Talking about Die Winterreise.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Andrew - I wouldn't use Mamet, even on his good days, as a model for enlightened explorations of gender... Good points, as far as they go: but for me the composer is a classic portrait of Romantic artistic struggle, right down to his destruction, and his gender, and the soullessness of the woman, and his struggle with his own desire for mundane relationship. The artist has to dismantle domesticity (as Coleridge was constantly urged to do, say) to enter the sublime/death. Etc. Like I said, it's a minor quibble given the achievement of the thing, but it's deeply embedded in its source material, and not really challenged. What might have happened if, say, the composer had been a woman?

Anon - Maybe because, for all its faults, it's quite clear that Lutton is extremely talented? Is it "immature" to reach beyond your grasp? Or is it just what artists (should) do? I thought Lutton's production of The Trial was excellent, so there's no "as usual" about it.

Anonymous said...

Hey Alison

I am just very tired of saying this artist is talented when there are so many other artists who never get a looksee in. And come on, you must admit, that that monologue by Matt Lutton's favoured writer collaborator, Tom Holloway, was probably one of the worse instances of taking a very finely constructed work (in1827) and dumbing it down to a flatly observed idea of a pain that the writer obviously doesn't know. One doesn't wish ill on any one but really ... After Black Saturday (et al), can we really talk about any sort of tragic trauma involving fire and be so immature? Sorry, but I'm angry about what is considered respectable playwriting in 2011. And would like to make the whole field better, stronger and more mature--rather than cast it down.

Anonymous said...

PS As usual refers to the gendered bank of "nice young boys' (as opposed to the blood bank or the transplant bank or the IVF bank) who stock 'OUR' professional theatre world. Mmm ... Yes, I'm angry but appreciate that we need to engage in dialogue rather than damn, Is there not, however, a place for plainspeak somewhere there? That being said, I think you said as much. It's just with so much crap going down about this and other wunderkid moments, I just wonder why we can't call a spade a spade ... bluntly. After all, aren't we all about the art, and the culture in which it resides? Yours in let's say it like it is!

Alison Croggon said...

Anon - I think when comments get to this kind of detailed argument, it's courteous to have some kind of handle or identity, even if you don't have the chutzpah to stand by your own name.

You don't think my review was plain speaking? I wasn't pulling my punches. Here's the paragraph in which I talk about the text:

"Perhaps the worst misjudgment is the introduction of an explanatory text, written by Tom Holloway, just before the end. Here the emotional hamfistedness of the production becomes very clear indeed. This monologue lets us in on the story that has informed the previous actions; it is (of course) a traumatic experience of loss, probably during Word War 2, probably in Germany. Suddenly Die Winterreise is enclosed in literalism, which shuts down its emotional openness and metaphorical resonance."

I don't see how this could be plainer. Or why you would ask for me to be "blunter" while on the other hand complaining about "dumbing down". Nor can I see any reason for disregarding or dismissing talent, wherever it emerges, and however it's recognised. That cuts all ways.

Anonymous said...

Alison, I think you were very plain speaking. And I'm sorry not to be quite as much. My distinctly emotional response is really about why we are even discussing a third-rate work and not just saying it doesn't deserve the space. You could say we have an onus to respond but maybe we (the 'community' more geneqeally) could sign a different pact: e.g., Let's just say that we'll only talk about what we find 'hot' or 'cold', rather than something more considered. I'm serious, and seriously troubled . ,Signed, The Emperor Has No Clothes On

Alison Croggon said...

I'd say that's a personal choice each of us gets to make. For my part, I'd far rather see an ambitious failure than a work that succeeds because it sets its horizons one inch high. There's much more of that second type of work around, gobbling up far more oxygen. Look at the discussions around Joanna Murray-Smith's or David Wiliamson's plays this year...

Richard Pettifer said...

I was thinking about that argument (ambitious failure vs. parochial sitting-on-hands) while I watched DW. I think it holds water here. I agree not everything works, and I was kind of bored by the ideas and pondering how theatre made this and why. A lady on the way out descibed it as 'pretentious' and I think it came off as such... though I'm sure M.L would be completely disillusioned by such a statement as this seems to me like a very honest offer from him that simply, for whatever reason, "misses the mark". In which case... surely that is worth an excuse. It is a problem with the direction though in my opinion.

I felt for Paul Kapsis - I think an opera singer should have been cast in a role that was so reliant on voice and so devoid of character. That felt like an easy option, and not a great one. But I know this work has had some development and manifestations at Bris Festival 2011 and maybe it just turned out this way through all those... I don't know.

jos said...

Didn't get to see Die Winterreise but your description of it did remind me of Kroetz's Request Concert in some ways - the sights,smells and sounds of an ordinary domestic evening, with a quiet desperation underneath. No Schubert in Request Concert though, just twenty minutes of low key listener requests. I think a lot of the power of that work was because it had no back story, no explanatory narrative, in fact no words at all.Sounds like there was a lot going on in Die Winterriese. Sometimes less is more...