From a Contemporary Drama Festival, Tales of Art and Survival

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At Berlin’s FIND festival of new international drama, some plays tackle larger themes while others refuse to be useful.

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Berlin – Theater is a sacrificial act, according to Spanish director and artist Angelica Liddell. In the opening minutes of his new show, “Libestode: the smell of blood does not leave my eyes, Juan Belmonte – Histoire (s) du Theater III,” She takes a razor blade and cuts off her knees and the back of her hands. It is a “sacrifice in the name of the absurd”, she explains in a online teaser for production. “It is not a sacrifice in pursuit of the greater good.”


“Libestaud” is the centerpiece of this year Get A celebration of the new international drama at Berlin’s Schaubühne Theatre, where many of the 2021 entries flirt with the redemptive power of art as a tool for both existence and transcendence.

The dramatic personality Liddell considers in “Libestode”, a monologue-fueled play about art, religion, Wagner and bullfighting, has loud, angry, self-destructive and shocking music.

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When she is not singing, coaxing or screaming with Bach, Handel and the Spanish flamenco rumba, she draws the audience out of her mediocrity, hypocrisy and medium-sized tastes to a less decorated stage, whose pale floors And red curtains suggest a bullring.

In extended solitude, Liddell rails against the spiritual and aesthetic collapse of contemporary “culture”. Nor does she spare herself from scathing criticism. As a result, the production includes an ongoing commentary on its status as an art form.

“Libestaud” certainly refers to Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde”. word often used as a shorthand to the opera’s radiant coda, where Isolde kills herself in a moment of transforming ecstasy. We never hear Aria in the production, although Liddell, dressed as a matador, recites the song to a stuffed effigy of a bull.

While bullfighting is a core trope of production, the “Libestod” is also steeped in Catholic symbolism. Liddell presents the liturgical in both disturbing and absurd ways, including a scene in which she wipes her blood with bread, which she then eats. There is also a double crippled man dressed as Jesus and a coffin-shaped glass relic filled with live cats. Some of these images seem worthy of Buuel (an artist Liddell revered), although atheist filmmakers would rise from the dead to protest when Liddell endorses theology as a corrective to a society built on secular values.

Although she herself and her audience (some of whom gave up; others laughed bewildered; most heartily applauded), it is clear that Liddell regards art as a source of sacred beauty. And in moments when her production approaches the high-water mark of art, Liddell makes us realize just how dazzling she is.

While Liddell performs as if her every minute on stage was a fight for survival, she isn’t the only person working at the festival for whom creating art seems to be a matter of life and death. Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov has been placed under house arrest for 18 months in Moscow on charges of embezzlement, which is widely believed to be trumped up. During his long imprisonment (and the subsequent coronavirus lockdown), Serebrennikov has directed plays, operas, films and even a ballet from afar. Much of his imprisonment-era work has dealt with oppression, paranoia, and even incarceration, suggesting a therapeutic work through themes that emerge largely in the director’s new reality.

In 2017, Serebrennikov approached Chinese photographer Ren Hang about developing a play inspired by his arrestingly provocative images. Shortly after, Hang leapt and died, and Serebrennikov’s freedom of movement was curtailed. From his living room, he prepared “Outside,” A fictional double performance by Himself and Hang that premiered at the 2019 Avignon Festival.

At the beginning of the performance, American actor Odin Lund Biron plays a character who is very similar to his director. He talks with his shadow about life in captivity and under surveillance. These opening scenes, which depict a version of the director’s Kafkaesque examination from the inside, are the most dramatically absorbed in the play. Soon, however, Biron is replaced by the gentle Russian actor Evgeny Sangdzhiev, who plays the Chinese photographer. The stage is filled with beautiful bodies, many naked or in various stages of undress.

Much of the following 90 minutes are a series of erotic choreography that bring Hang’s photographs to life. Arrested over and over again, the long succession of tableau enthusiasts often seems to be arbitrary in its order and selection.

“Outside,” though less hermetic than “Libestaud,” is equally committed to art about mining individual pain for the rare beauty that Epiphany can produce. For all their differences, these two shows reflect the sensibilities of artists who aren’t afraid to practice their art as an end in itself.

“I think making theater into an instrument is death to the theater and death to the art,” Liddell says in the “Libestode” teaser. In the context of this year’s festivities, the credits almost seem like a warning to some of the other artists featured in the show.

In “Not the end of the world,” Writer Chris Bush and director Katie Mitchell risk using the theater to lecture audiences about the dangers of climate change. Bush is a young, acclaimed British playwright; Mitchell is arguably the most influential English theater producer to work regularly on the continent. Unfortunately, their encounter is unfortunate.

The drama toggles between time periods and plot lines at breakneck speed: a young climate scientist interviewed for a postdoctoral position; a researcher who dies during a research expedition; A woman offers a eulogy for her mother.

To their credit, Bush and Mitchell have deliberately avoided making a militant drama, but what they’ve given us is so slippery it’s too hard to handle.

The wealth of ambiguous or cosmically strange anecdotes that are stuffed into this collegalic text often make the play sound like “Findings,” the back-page feature of Harper’s magazine that compiles wild facts from science magazines.

Keeping in mind the theme of the play, the entire production has been crafted for consistency. The British team did not go to Berlin for rehearsals; sets and costumes that have been recycled or reused; And the show’s sound and lighting are operated by two cyclists who pedal from the sides of the stage. Yet these facts don’t add much to the production.

Another British Production on FIND, Alexander Zeldins “Love,” Also carries the risk of “making the theater an instrument”. First seen in 2016 at the National Theater in London, it centers on a family who are suddenly evicted from their apartment and find themselves in a crowded shelter, struggling to maintain their dignity. Huh.

There are many ways this kind of drama can go wrong, but “love” is neither earnest nor preachy. The subjects are so elegantly portrayed, and the characters so beautifully presented, that it almost secretly becomes politically necessary; The emotional impact of production is astonishing considering how economically it is put together.

The sprawling set depicting the deserted abode plays a central role – for the actors, I imagine, as much for the audience. It is natural theater at its best, highlighting the work of filmmakers Mike Leigh and Ken Loach.

“Love” made me think that maybe Liddell is too authoritarian in his thinking. I am not saying it is easy, but in the hands of the right artist, theater that is alive to social and political issues can be an opportunity for beauty and excellence.

FIND 2021 will continue till 10 October in Schaubühne

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