The scene is Markus Selg’s studio in Friedrichshain, Berlin’s nightlife hotspot. Inside, a model of the steelworks in the German city of Duisburg recalls a doll’s house. Nearby is a cut-open pyramid that resembles an altar, and an eight-strong choir. A female likeness rests on a pedestal, and nine small projection screens hang in the hall. ‘We’re shooting a film’, says Susanne Kennedy, the director who, after a decade in the Netherlands, has embarked on one of German theatre’s most extraordinary careers. Kennedy adds, ‘Markus and I can no longer work separately on Medea.Matrix. Since the imagery is linked so closely with the words, we can only make progress together.’
Together with her partner Selg, a visual artist, the couple is collaborating for the first time to develop a work, based on the Medea myth, employing film, installation, sound and performance to take on the grand themes of birth, death and the birth of tragedy. Medea.Matrix is a dramatic spectacle, but without any proscenium arch, curtain or footlights. The piece is due to premiere in September at the Ruhrtriennale in Duisburg-Nord Landscape Park. There, the original steelworks in no way recalls a doll’s house: it looks like a cathedral to industrial capitalism – a bit like Berlin’s Berghain club, but smarter. For the play, videos will flicker in the factory windows, transforming them into church windows. The heroine Birgit Minichmayr, a major-league actress with a booming voice, sweeping gestures and star appeal, will stand out amid this highly technical setting.
‘We hope to contrast the installation with something very direct’, says Kennedy, adding: ‘I don’t want people to say that I always work with playback and sculpture. That shouldn’t be seen as a default approach.’ Kennedy’s productions, such as her adaptation of Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Michael Fengler (2014 at Munich’s Kammerspiele, 2015 at Berlin’s Theatertreffen), have often replaced actors’ voices with recordings. For that production, scripts were recorded slowly but clearly by non-professional actors, often with a Bavarian accent, and improvised dialogue. Compared to Minichmayr, Kennedy’s past performers have generally shared a more sober disposition. For Medea.Matrix, it seems as though Kennedy is herself in flux.
The studio wall in Berlin is still hung with the text fragments on the Medea myth that Kennedy found, devised, recorded or rewrote. They are variations on the image of Medea, the woman-demigoddess-priestess, whose traditional role as a child murderer only began with the play by Euripides, 2,500 years ago. The myth always remains full of blood, pain and sacrifice, regardless of whether one associates it with voodoo practices (as filmed by Selg in Benin) or with one’s own experiences of having children (the couple have recently become parents). ‘It’s about the principle of theatre,’ says Kennedy: ‘These characters have to kill for us again and again. Medea is like a pregnancy that brings tragedy into the world. And the matrix is the mother animal.’ Here, the snake bites its own tail; the crocodile carries its young between its teeth.
In 2017, Kennedy will join Chris Dercon’s new team at Berlin’s Volksbühne. There Dercon, who will remain the Director of Tate Modern until Spring 2017, will succeed Frank Castorf, who in his 25 years at the Volksbühne has exerted an unparalleled influence on European theatre. In April 2015, the announcement of Dercon’s appointment triggered the biggest dispute in German theatre in over 20 years – a culture war that continues to verge on the libellous. ‘It hit me hard when the first wave of hate came’, says Kennedy. ‘But it was also clear that the anger and sadness of Castorf’s Volksbühne were justified. Something is coming to an end there.’ She says this, she adds, as someone who, like any right-minded theatre-lover, admires Castorf, ‘and it would be strange if this man, of all people, were to go quietly.’
Some elements of this dispute surrounding Dercon’s appointment are beginning to smack unpleasantly of resentment over Berlin’s increased internationalization of the last decade. Dercon’s programme has yet to be revealed, but it is clear that it will involve an approach different from Castorf’s: more international, more project-based, and likely with more dance and installation-related pieces. The hegemonic model of Berlin’s four fully state-funded theatres, which maintain a repertoire a permanently employed ensemble of actors, is contrasted with a different type of institution. Meanwhile, the majority model has been presenting itself as threatened and marginalized. Things get complicated when one considers that the ‘old’ Volksbühne drastically reduced its core ensemble years ago and was one of the first major theatres in Germany whose programme displayed an openness to non-text-based aesthetics. Which suggests that this dispute may be less about artistic issues than the protection of vested interests: after 25 years, some people clearly see the venue as their property. Kennedy: ‘I think it’s also a generational issue. People my age and younger who love the Volksbühne still have a taste for something new.’ What that will look like remains to be seen.
In this hostile climate, Kennedy’s approach – coming from theatre but testing its limits – could build bridges. At the Kammerspiele in Munich under the Dutch artistic director Johan Simons, Kennedy’s productions of Marieluise Fleisser’s Purgatory in Ingolstadt (2013) and Fassbinder/Fengler’s Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? (2014) caused a stir. In their works, both Fleisser and Fassbinder show how violence erupts out of a petit-bourgeois idyll. Their characters walk this path themselves: from sup-posed normality to a state of emergency. In Kennedy’s version, how-ever, this development is cut. The characters seem to be merely repeating their stories, caught in an ahistorical limbo. The artificiality of the language, the long pauses in the dialogues, the absence of acoustic atmospherics and, of course, the smoothness of their mummified faces, break with the grand claims of theatre: presence, vitality, immediacy. We see individuals who, after several decades of neoliberalism, have become very tired. So far, however, there is nothing they can do to combat the activation of their bodies. They are stuck in a loop. This is uncanny and funny in equal measure.
After the Medea project in Duisburg, Kennedy returns to the Kammerspiele in Munich, having secured the rights to The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides (1993), popularized by Sofia Coppola’s 1999 film version. Maybe it will only become clear after Duisburg, through this Munich production, that Kennedy is not interested in a critique of the petit-bourgeoisie, as some people suspected after the Fassbinder- Fengler and Fleisser projects. In the hermeneutic frame of the proscenium stage, bodies become characters, quickly becoming symbols of a message. Theatre (or the mainstream of its ageing proponents) still calls for distinct positions and class analyses even when its dramaturgy has moved beyond storytelling.
Kennedy had already expanded these spaces in previous productions. Three years ago, for example, with the Dutch Toneelgroep Oostpool and her colleagues Suzan Boogaerdt and Bianca van der Schoot, the postmodern soap opera Hideous (wo)men (2013) played on a revolving stage. Here, too, the dialogues were pre-recorded and the actors, all women, were barely recognizable under their costumes and makeup. In the closing section they exposed their bodies – but in lieu of genitals, they revealed nothing but foam rubber. Here it was again: the loop in purgatory.
A central aspect of Kennedy’s work, exemplified in Hideous (wo)men, is its auditory component. To the audience, both the dialogue and sound effects can feel obtrusively dry, as if one were wearing headphones. While the performers tend towards sculpture, intimacy is shifted into the sound that is cut off from them. This feeling of aural playback, and the many video images the characters make of themselves, amount to a diagnosis of something like narcissism. In this situation, violence is never far: the presence of a pain that today’s digital world likes to delegate to gadgets. Last year, with the same team, Kennedy placed the emphasis even more strongly on music and sound in her Ruhrtriennale production, this time at the Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex in Essen. That play, based on Monteverdi’s baroque opera Orfeo, toured to Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau.
Contrary to claims of the Dercon haters, Kennedy certainly can’t be accused of making feel-good art. Her themes connect in an almost ghostly way with the German tradition of the tragic. Drawing attention to violence means keeping it in check. ‘The theatre is a safe context that allows this,’ says Kennedy. ‘We switch off our mobile phones and find ourselves in a different place.’
Translated by Nicholas Grindell
Tobi Müller is a freelance journalist writing mainly about pop music and theatre. He lives in Berlin and works, among others, for Deutschlandradio Kultur, Zurich’s Tages-Anzeiger, WDR und SRF.
First published in Issue 25