An archive of arts writing by Neil Cooper.
Effete No Obstacle.
Sunday, 29 January 2012
Hamletmachine - Heiner Muller Manipulated
“My main interest when I write plays is to destroy things,” wrote
German iconoclast Heiner Muller, as quoted in Theatremachine, Marc von
Henning's English-language translation of Muller's most essential
works. “For thirty years Hamlet for me was an obsession, so I wrote a
short text, Hamletmachine, with which I tried to destroy Hamlet. German
history was another obsession, and I tried to destroy this obsession,
too, that whole complex. I think my strongest impulse is to reduce
things down to their skeleton, to tear off their skin and their flesh.
Then I'm finished with them.”
With this in mind, no wonder the two productions of Muller's
post-modern rewiring of Shakespeare seemed to Max Legoube of French
puppet theatre company Compangnie Sans Soucis so wrong-headedly
violent. Legoube's take on things, which opens this year's Manipulate
visual theatre festival at the Traverse in Edinburgh, aims to redress
the balance with a ravishing multi-media approach that cuts through
Muller's brooding dissections of Marxism and feminism to explore the
frailty of existence in close-up.
“It surprised Max just how aggressive these productions were,” says
Sans Soucis associate Deborah Lennie, who acts as translator for
Legoube, who sits beside her as she acts as his mouthpiece. “So when he
first saw these productions he hated the text. Then when he read the
text himself, he found something heartbreaking in it, and there was
something quite surprising about feelings, darkness and held-back
anger. He found that was completely the opposite of what he'd seen, and
that difference really intrigued him. That was why he wanted to do it,
to defend the text, and to find out what was underneath.
“For Max, the text is both a psychological narrative and something
approaching a dream state, so there is the idea of a changing of
scales, where things that are little can become big and vice versa, so
the interior side of the self can be confronted. There is this
confrontation between the individual and the mass that provokes
ruptures in the text. We do this using puppets, lighting, sound and
video, all of which are very important in trying to call upon the
subconsciousness of the spectator, and to make the spectator
participate in the performance, to liberate the spectator, and, rather
than present a conclusion, to open the mind.”
Written in 1977, the nine pages of dense monologues that make up
Hamletmachine was first produced in France, although it became
something of a cause celebre when American director Robert Wilson took
a lavish hi-tech take on things in 1986. Famous for his stagings of
cross-collaborative work by the likes of Philip Glass, Tom Waits and
William Burroughs, and, more recently, Rufus Wainwright and Marina
Abramovic, Wilson gave Muller's work a mythical, epic edge, which,
three years before the Berlin Wall fell, was already suggesting, if not
a post-political age, then certainly an era of less certainties.
'Goodbye to didacticism', Muller wrote in the play's introduction.
Hamletmachine remains the most performed work of a writer born in
Saxony in what was then East Germany, and whose youthful membership of
the Socialist Unity Party and the German Writers Association quickly
established him as a major writer while still in his twenties. By 1961,
however, his plays were being censored or banned, while Muller was
effectively expelled from the Writers Association. Paradoxically,
Muller's work began to find popularity in the west. It was arguably
this division that made his works increasingly less orthodox, predating
and predicting society's increasingly fractured state as old ideologies
collapsed in on themselves.
Hamletmachine itself premiered in Paris in 1979, while English
translations of some of Muller's other works had trickled across the
border for several years. If Wilson's production of Hamletmachine
became iconic in a style that reflected Muller's own tendency to pick
and mix other texts in a form of literary sampling more common in live
art collage, Muller's own production several years later went further.
More than seven hours in length, Hamletmachine itself was folded into
Shakespeare's original as the play within a play that proves so crucial
to the Danish Prince's subsequent downfall. Other productions have
included a radio version by Einsturzende Neubaten, the German
industrial band whose entire aesthetic, like Muller, was about smashing
down old barriers. Where Muller did it through words, Einsturzende
Neubaten, whose name translates as Collapsing New Buildings, went
beyond metaphor towards something more physical. A 1981 concert at the
Institute of Contemporary Arts ended in chaos when the band attempted
to drill a hole in the floor.
Muller's work hasn't been seen much in Scotland. Outside of a
production of the Dangerous Liaisons-appropriated Quartet by Stewart
Laing in the Citizens Theatre's Circle Studio, the only other
substantial sighting of Muller in a professional context was more than
twenty years ago.
Off The Wall was a week-long series of rehearsed readings and
workshop-style productions of new German work at the Royal Lyceum
Theatre in Edinburgh under the auspices of playwright and Literary
Director for Scotland, the late Tom McGrath and translator Ella
Wildridge. Taking place in 1990, just a year after the Berlin Wall
fell, Off The Wall brought together work by writers from both east and
west. Given McGrath's own experiments with dramatic form, the focus was
understandably on writers with a similarly radical outlook. One was
Tankred Dorst, whose epic two-part version of Merlin was later staged
at the Lyceum. The other was Muller.
The programme of Muller works included an excerpt from Quartet set to a
soundtrack of one of the previous year's club hits. Somewhat
presciently called The Power, it was performed by German Eurodance trio
Snap!, who used (initially unauthorised) samples from Mantronix and
Jocelyn Brown on a par with the way in which Muller, and indeed Wilson,
used other sources. Performed in eighteenth century costume, this
presentation was directed by Marc von Henning.
The presentation of Hamletmachine at Off The Wall proved even more
irreverent, and not a little controversial after director Michael Batz
asked his cast to perform naked apart from giant heads of Stalin and
other Communist icons. In a typically Mulleresque spirit of defiance,
the actors refused unless he did likewise. With Batz duly complying
with their wishes, the performance went ahead, and Edinburgh discovered
Hamletmachine for the first time.
In contrast to Muller's seven-hour approach, Sans Soucis' production
lasts a mere fifty-five minutes. Legoube laughs at the difference,
which goes some way to illustrate his notions of scale in his very
personal approach to Hamletmachine itself.
“There is a political element in the play,” Lennie translates, “that is
about the confrontation between communism and capitalism, but it's not
the sort of theatre that is there to give the spectators a lesson, or
tell them what is good and bad, like Brechtian, didactic theatre. What
interests Max is the whole story apart from the political thing. His
approach looks more towards imagery concerning the fragility of
humanity, what it has become, and is still becoming today.
Max thinks it is very important today for the public to let itself be
surprised, and that they don't have to understand everything. Each
person can go away with their own point of view that goes beyond
ideological and literary conflicts. In this way, it is the openness of
Hamletmachine that makes it so important today.”
Hamletmachine, Manipulate, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, January 30th