Beautiful Corpses and Yasmina Reza’s »Bella Figura«

by Joseph Pearson

13 May 2015

»Bella Figura« is a play where the stage direction »flottement« (a suspension, indeterminacy, or oscillation) occurs frequently, indicating a moment of silence when the characters and audience are left in ambiguous tension. The playwright Yasmina Reza (»Art«, »God of Carnage«) wrote »Bella Figura« specifically for the Schaubühne director Thomas Ostermeier, and I imagine that she included these floating silences with him in mind.

When she was in Berlin to pick up the Kythera prize last May, Reza followed Thomas into the theatre to catch his »The Little Foxes«. Perhaps the Kammerspiel of the Lillian Hellman play caught the writer’s imagination? Those moments of »flottement«, the kinetic silences between Nina Hoss and Mark Waschke who now play the leads in »Bella Figura«? For it is precisely the negative spaces of tension between characters with which Ostermeier works so well.

He explains over a cup of green tea in his office, »I told her after we saw »The Little Foxes«, I want you to write for this ensemble of actors, and that’s how it started«. The project went forward remarkably quickly. »She was amazed; this is the first time that a play is produced so soon after she wrote it.« He received the first scenes in November when he started casting, a full script was done by January, and the premiere is in May. Ostermeier translated the text himself from French to German, together with his dramaturge, Florian Borchmeyer.

I ask him how he directs this kind of chamber drama, and he replies that, »It is my way of perceiving reality. Maybe I see or feel the vibrations between people more than others. If you sit me down in a restaurant, you could leave me there for three hours and I would be content just observing. I am constantly trying to understand what is going on, but I never completely achieve it. I am completely fascinated by people and their behaviour. So I simply ask the actors to do what my perception of the world is; this might create the vibrant energy between them«.

»What are you looking for, when you observe people?« I ask.

»My obsession is that I want to see behind the mask«, he replies.

»Behind the mask?«

»That’s why I’m obsessed by people, especially in those moments when they don’t think they are being observed. When they are fighting, when they forget to maintain their masks. That’s the idea of theatre. In conflicts, we show the motivations that we usually try to hide. We are driven under these circumstances to say out loud what we desire. Maybe we cannot understand who we are with our brains, in a rational way. That’s why I try to understand who we are by a three-dimensional sensual experience, which is theatre«.

Reza too is a keen observer of the human spectacle, and there are plenty of moments in her play when the mask drops. One might make the mistake of assuming the play is high-level boulevard theatre, but, as Ostermeier explains, this does not do justice to her project. Indeed, it would be a mistake to reduce the production to a comedy of manners. On one level, »Bella Figura« takes familiar material: a cheating husband, caught with his lover by a friend of his wife, in the moral straightjacket of the French provinces near Bordeaux. But there are elements in the play that speak to much more poignant and existentially fraught issues. The play plays off vanity in two senses, says Ostermeier, our vanity regarding physical appearance, our endless effort to keep up una bella figura. But also vanity in the sense of Vergänglichkeit, of time passing, and the absurdity of the everyday.

»On the one hand the play is boulevard. On the other hand, it’s very pointed, and poignant, much more than any boulevard play could be. It was interesting today, in rehearsal, that the two lead actors told me that they don’t usually dream about the productions in which they are involved. But this play made them so engaged and sad, that the actors started dreaming about it the past couple of nights. Every day they are discovering another layer of their characters. And that usually doesn’t happen if you put on a bourgeois comedy«.

The characters in »Bella Figura« lack courage, says Ostermeier. They are trapped by their appearances, and this is accentuated by certain cues in the text that point to the world behind things. The set is one revolving stage, with a huge projection wall in the background. On it will be images of animals: frogs, grasshoppers, cockroaches, flies, perhaps there will even be lobsters present. Mosquitoes attack the characters’ feet, making them swell so they can no longer fit into expensive shoes.

»The frogs are very important to me: ›les bruits de la nature me font peur‹ (The sounds of nature frighten me). You are afraid under this beautiful sky with its many stars, it’s a very existential feeling. The fact is that you are sitting on a planet looking up to the sky, seeing the universe around you, not knowing what this is all about, and hearing these mysterious noises from other animals, animals like you. If you take it all seriously, you realise that these frogs, at the same time, are the sound of a mating ritual. You are confronted with the deep issue of Eros and Thanatos. It feels awkward, and at the same time it is an existential feeling of being completely lost, or, as it is in German, this beautiful philosophical expression [from Heidegger] of Geworfensein. Another beautiful word for this in German is Unbehaustheit. You don’t have a home.«

I ask, »What kind of response can we have to this existential terror?«

»There’s no response«.

»Can we talk about courage?«

»These characters don’t have the courage simply to drop the mask. Boris is not courageous enough to tell his wife: for four years I’ve had a lover, and it’s more passionate with her, even though she’s crazy. Either we accept I am having an affair, or we look into each other’s eyes and tell each other we should split up. His lack of courage causes a lot of misery«.

Indeed, the characters in this play cannot get out of their patterns, they cannot do what they truly wish. They are wedded to this idea of fare bella figura, putting on a »good face«. But nor are they brave enough to do so joyfully.

»At the meal in the expensive seafood restaurant, late in the play, they cannot even enjoy their oysters«, I say.

»No, but we can«, replies Thomas, with a laugh.

»Don’t you feel that the theatre itself, as an art form, exacerbates the sense of pain, in relation to vanity and Vergänglichkeit – the impermanence of things that is so central to this play?«

»Theatre is the most truthful art form in terms of this vanity«.

»Is that not why it’s so painful?«

»It’s painful and beautiful at the same time«, Ostermeier says, »It is like in painting: those Flemish still lives of pomegranates, of rotting corpses. They are all vanishing, but dying with incredible beauty. Of course there is pain, but in this passing we can also find pleasure«.

Bella Figura

by Yasmina Reza
Direction: Thomas Ostermeier
World Premiere

Premiered on 16 May 2015