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Berg and Kosky's Wiener Schauspielhaus

Jonathan Marshall

Ever since Australia’s greying enfant terrible Barrie Kosky moved to Vienna, the Austrian capital has become a haven for his compatriots. Cabaret artist Paul Capsis, actor Melita Jurisic, architect-designer Peter Corrigan and expatriate puppeteer Neville Tranter have all passed through his company.

Together with Airan Berg, Kosky is co-artistic director of the Wiener Schauspielhaus. Kosky was in Berlin directing a production of Ligetti’s Le grand macabre when I was in town, but Berg warmly welcomed me in his absence. Kosky’s penchant for music theatre led some Australians to mistakenly assume that there was a period when founding artistic director Hans Gratzer staged classic Baroque operas. Berg insists: “This is a theatre company. Schauspielhaus means playhouse. We’re not a sprektheatre, nor a musiktheatre, nor a tanztheatre. Both Kosky’s and my definition of theatre comes from the original. Theatre is a unity of different forms. Theatron means ‘to watch’, so you have to see. My work and Barrie’s and that of the people we invite here has music, speech, dance, puppets, projections, whatever. We are in this sense a unique haus for Vienna.”

The vision that Berg and Kosky have for the company is that it acts as a staging ground for the interaction of different cultural and social elements, whatever these may be. This is not restricted to Kosky’s Jewish-themed music theatre and cabaret which he has continued to produce since leaving Australia, or Berg’s politically themed, imagistic work with strong use of video projection. Schauspielhaus productions also feature the on-stage collision and interaction of multiple spoken languages. Berg observes, “For Barrie and myself, international exchange, multi-linguicity and multi-ethnicity is everyday. We say we’re not multicultural; we’re normal.” The Schauspielhaus constitutes an overt, public staging of that which is often buried under the accretions of this former imperial city—that Vienna has been and remains a crossroads of states, nationalities, races and cultures.

The Schauspielhaus production I saw provided a fine example of this aesthetic. The Continuum: Beyond the killing fields was a fostered work, produced with TheatreWorks from Singapore. Even at the pragmatic level of programming, the Schauspielhaus is about the interaction of multiple forms, ideas, institutions and individuals. Continuum was part of the Myths of Memory season, focussing on ethnic cleansing and related atrocities. Throughout the season, behind the seating within the plain Schauspielhaus theatre, sat The Library of Ethnic Cleansing, a collection of video stations featuring films, interviews and documentary materials focussing on the wars of the nearby Yugoslav peninsula. Audiences could peruse these materials before, between and after the live performances.

The Continuum is heir to a tradition of ‘documentary theatre’ which flourished in Eastern Europe following the break-up of Communism. However, director Ong Keng Sen’s production dealt with 5 dancers of the Khmer Court style, 3 of whom were survivors of the Khmer Rouge’s Killing Fields of 1975-9. The piece was remarkable for the depth, layering and intensity sustained by its minimalist mise en scène. The performers came forward on an unadorned stage, knelt before the audience and plainly retold their stories in their own language. The house lights remained at a low level throughout and audiences were provided with printed scripts in German or English. Through this simple aesthetic, Sen produced, with far less fanfare, Brecht’s theatre of strong emotional engagement (provided by the honesty of the performers and the nature of the material), vitally combined with critical distance (achieved by forcing Viennese audiences to recognise that interpretation of this work required effort on their behalf).

This strongly affective defamiliarisation of forms, ideas and experiences was also visible in the staging of the dance and shadow puppetry. Musician Yutaka Fukuoka sat under gentle lighting at the side of the stage, visible to the audience—just as in traditional Khmer Court performances. However his costume was black and his instrument was a MIDI with a highly expressive, console-like interface. The dancers restaged traditional choreography in Khmer dress, but both the lighting and the music was ‘modern.’ Continuity and change; the recapturing of an all-but-wiped-out tradition with the full force of modern electroacoustic playfulness behind it; all played out on stage. Using this basic dramaturgical framing, Sen rendered ‘traditional’ dance eminently ‘contemporary’—or rather newly exciting and surprising, while retaining the poignancy of historical depth. Through such works, as well as Kosky’s own Yiddish, German and English amalgams, the Wiener Schauspielhaus acts, in Berg’s words, “like a window onto the rest of the world which Vienna otherwise lacks.”

RealTime issue #56 Aug-Sept 2003 pg. 8

© Jonathan Marshall; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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