A Glittering Abyss. »abgrund« at the Schaubühne
by Joseph Pearson
28 March 2019
The set gleams.
»›abgrund‹ is about the surface«, director Thomas Ostermeier tells me of the play written by Maja Zade, »It’s a play of light, a wealth of glitter; it’s the glitz on the surface«.
A kitchen bar, made of stainless steel, is the only piece of furniture that stands in the centre of a dark set. A minimal light hangs above the table; the wine glasses and kitchen utensils catch the glow. Behind, illuminated stark lettering announces the scenes, the many small conflicts to be played out around this expensive designer space.
I have never seen an Ostermeier production so stripped of furniture; but there is enough here, in Nina Wetzel’s stage design, to create a world familiar to us: an apartment in Berlin, in the year 2019. It is the most minimal of backdrop to set in relief Ostermeier’s ›Kammerspiel‹.
During a break in the rehearsal, I am drawn to the stage. I sniff a wine bottle. Is it real Chardonnay, or water? The red wine looks authentic. But it smells of blackcurrant. There are half-eaten bowls of chocolate pudding littered on the reflective steel surface. A water carafe stands full of colourful crystals.
»The water tastes better with the crystals in it«, actor Laurenz Laufenberg tells me.
»Maybe they infuse the water with minerals – « I suggest, not believing in any more spiritual explanation.
»Ah, Quatsch! du spinnst wohl«, Alina Stiegler says – don’t be daft.
»The food is all real«, Laurenz goes on, »There’s salad, lamb chops. The pudding is delicious, but too much of it can put you to sleep«.
I ask him, »Are you really eat all of it during the production?«
»Some actors don’t like too much food in their stomachs«.
»But it’s in the scene!« he tells me, and I tell Laurenz he’s being very »method-y« today.
I return to my seat in Saal B and on-stage the scene resumes. I start to feel strange. I can’t help now but feel that my conversation with Laurenz at the kitchen bar was theatrical. The actors are involved in the same kind of colloquial talk. Moritz Gottwald and Christoph Gawenda discuss the quality of products at Tchibo; Jenny König remarks you can always find a little something to buy there. The kitchen-chatter interlaces convincingly. They are even talking at the same volume as Laurenz and I did; all the actors wear microphones, so their speaking voices can be used on stage.
But I know that what is now happening on stage is not the same as my conversation a minute ago. If reality were reproduced exactly on stage, we wouldn’t believe it. The talent of ›Kammerspiel‹ is to create a fiction we believe is real.
I ask Ostermeier how he achieves this effect.
He says, »A lot of it is about rhythm. These past weeks I have trained actors, with exercises, to observe how language is rhythmically composed in real life. Most of the time, reality is faster and more structured. There are more ups and downs in volume. It is more musical than 90% of what is happening on stage. I try to build up the awareness of that difference. But I really didn’t need to force the actors: they were completely obsessed. Everyone, since rehearsing, has listened differently when they are invited to a dinner«.
»Presumably it helps that these actors have all worked together before«, I suggest.
»You would be lost without the spirit of an ensemble. Most of them know each other and have built a level of trust that can only happen over years. They know that a performance is created by the interaction between them, and wouldn’t happen if each had her solo. They are used to this kind of acting: they know it can work, to make the audience believe they are not performing«.
Maja Zade’s text, in Ostermeier’s words, is »colloquial«, about the surface of an evening when dinner guests make small talk.
Thomas tells me, »I am obsessed with realistic behaviour and colloquial conversation. I must say it’s rarely done in a good way in German theatre, and directors in contact with contemporary writing tend to overdo what is happening. But, in the English tradition, there is a beautiful history of well-made colloquial plays. I am trying to go farther than I have before, by using in-ear microphone headsets. In the best of cases, you actually feel invited to dinner, like you are sitting with the other guests. And if the actors don’t need to project their voices, they can really imitate the subtleties of small talk and create intimacy. These headphones also allow you to work with frequencies and sounds you cannot normally use in theatre. Since there are fifty-three [sic!] scene changes, there is room for an expansive sound design, and for music, which both lend another layer of horror and strangeness to this world«.
Listening to Zade’s text on stage, I think back to the visual poetry of it. I remember speaking to one of the actors when she first received the script, and she told me: it’s very beautiful but I don’t know when to speak! Indeed, the script does not assign lines to particular voices but reads instead as a long prose-poem, with a hermetic elegance on the page. Here is just one example of a scene:
if bettina had gone into the room a second earlier
if pia hadn’t woken up
if gertrud had woken up
if pia had stayed at the table
if the baby monitor had been louder
if the two of them
Ostermeier tells me, »I loved the text the first time I read it. I had the same experience you seem to have had: it’s very poetic, very clear, well composed, you might even talk about a long poem. What I find a little bit sad, honestly, is that by having to make a choice about who is saying what, you end up with a well-made play all the time, and some of that beauty vanishes. At the same time, you get something in return: it is as if an animal has been bred from it. The text gains breath, you can see what is really happening – even more – in a three-dimension space where more than one storyline is told and we slowly begin to understand the catastrophe at the centre of one of them«.
This catastrophe – which we won’t spell out here – might be read as the »abgrund« of the play, a word that in German both suggests the precipice and the abyss. It’s a piece that invites interpretation.
I certainly am tempted to give a hasty reading to everything I see: the use of a gauze screen in front of the actors, and another one behind them, allows for double-layered video projection; they suggest to me the multiplicity of possible interpretations. The projections also give a sense of recession, that there are several levels to the play’s reality. Often the projections are out-of-focus, lending a sense of ambiguity. Meanwhile, the minimalism of the stage allows the darkness from off-stage to creep in. I can’t help but interpret that, here, we feel the abyss which is the play’s title. But I shake my head, who am I to say?
Ostermeier tells me, »I try not to know at every moment where the play is leading. Sometimes, I try more and more to get closer to a truth inside the play, which neither Maja nor myself knows. I cannot tell you what it is going to tell in the end: whether it more Bourdieu, or more Lacan, or neither of these«.
French theorist Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of »Habitus« and cultural capital are one lens through which to understand the action. Bourdieu argues that a person’s cultural capital – which allows them social mobility in a class society – is connected to their ›Habitus‹: the knowledge of cultural markers they have inherited, the objects of cultural value they have collected in their homes (like an Eames chair), or their institutional position in society. Lacan’s notion of the ›Real‹, meanwhile, is perhaps suggested by the abyss in the play, that which escaped the symbolic, and cannot be reduced to meaning. Perhaps both theorists share their value as cultural capital themselves: drop either name at a dinner party and see what happens to your stock price.
Ostermeier tells me how cultural capital works at such an evening: »We feel the familiarity of being invited over to friends for dinner, and they are cooking. But you feel that no one is really communicating. Everything they say has the same value, whether you are talking about refugees or truffles in the soup. During rehearsals, we got to thinking about Bourdieu and the competitive exchange of cultural capital in social situations. Who has the best story, the most incredible news, the most shocking gossip, or specialised knowledge about pop culture, art, design, or politics? All these subjects have the same value because it’s not about digging deep into issues, but a stock market about coming out the best«.
»Is there a reason this competition takes place in a kitchen in Prenzlauer Berg?« I ask.
Ostermeier throws up his hands, »Prenzlauer Berg! You know, honestly, I’m fed up with it. Already in 2002, with my production of ›A Doll’s House‹ we were talking about this world. No one said the word ›Prenzlauer Berg‹, but I was interested then in the new bourgeoisie, ›die Neue Mitte‹: people who dreamed of a career in start-ups during the social re-invention of Germany, as we belatedly absorbed Reaganomics and Thatcherism«.
»It’s a young urban professional world of people with money and distinguished in their aesthetic choices, always knowing ›le dernier cri‹: be it in art, theatre or music. This was something new in Germany. Germany always had rich people, but they rarely cared about being contemporary: they wanted their villa, their Bentley, to go hunting, to live a traditional old-money lifestyle. Now, new money no longer tries to imitate these people. Instead, they buy a loft in a former industrial quarter, living a life you could just a well find in Sydney, London or Vancouver. They show they are wealthy in different ways: by ordering champagne with their pizza. A lot of these people in Prenzlauer Berg bought their apartments with money from their parents, but have an identity problem. They are performing to be Prenzlauer Bergers. But they don’t know what they are performing, as they try to build a different world from their parents. The biggest accusation is that they are doing exactly the same thing that their parents did, except with different clothes and music. And they are repeating their parents’ patriarchal patterns, with the wife at home raising the kids. They care about cultural capital in the same way – as people did in bourgeois 19th-century circles – but they are creating different markers«.
I add, »But behind this surface of cultural competition there is the precipice, the abyss, perhaps even the ›Real‹ – «
Ostermeier replies, »It is not that the characters understand that there is an abyss, or that they are constantly trying to avoid looking at. What Maja does with the catastrophe in the play is to show how these people are unable to handle or confront it. It shows their emptiness and insecurity, their inability to deal humanely with one another. The question of empathy is central to the play. The play does not celebrate misanthropy, but rather mirrors it. And by holding the mirror, she wants to overcome this behaviour. The catastrophe could be many things: a terror attack, an illness, a bus accident. But that’s not the point of the play. The point is to confront the character with something she cannot put into a frame, where there is no one to call guilty or to blame for what has happened, even when four lives are destroyed as a result«.
by Maja Zade
Director: Thomas Ostermeier
Premiered on 2 April 2019Trailer