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The luminous nightmare of Marius von Mayenburg

Keith Gallasch talks with Benedict Andrews, director of Eldorado

The premiere production of Marius von Mayenburg’s THE COLD CHILD (Das Kalte Kind) will be staged at The Stables Theatre July 12 – August 5 directed by Anthony Skuse. For more information go to the Stablemates section

Benedict Andrews Benedict Andrews
photo Pia Johnson
Benedict Andrews is about to make his Melbourne directorial debut with Marius von Mayenburg’s Eldorado for Malthouse. Andrews’ strong body of work has included a commitment to contemporary German plays alongside forays into Brecht, Malraux, Calderon, Chekhov, Shakespeare, Sarah Kane and Caryl Churchill, all with a consistently developing, bold vision.

Melbourne’s radical theatre lineage includes Lindzee Smith, Peter King, Jenny Kemp, Richard Murphet, Barrie Kosky, Nico Lathouris, Margaret Cameron, Douglas Horton and Michael Kantor, and continues in the new generation of theatre magicians John Bailey has been reviewing on these pages. Andrews, a Flinders University Drama School Graduate and former Sydney Theatre Company Associate Director (with Wesley Enoch and the guidance of Stephen Armstrong), will find himself in good company, in a theatre culture which has seen itself as engaged in a European tradition of a very distinctly Australian kind. Not only that, but Andrews, like Kosky, has been developing a life as a director in Europe. His productions in Sydney attracted the interest of Berlin’s Schaubühne, where he has now directed 2 plays including Blackbird by the Scots writer David Harrower (reviewed in RT 71, p10 by Melbourne director Daniel Schlusser) and is looking forward to doing more—and extending his grasp of the German language.

I asked Andrews about the attractions of German theatre and of German plays. As a student he’d been fascinated with Buchner and Brecht, visited Germany and later toured his account of Goethe’s Ur/Faust there. “It’s the only culture in the world where mainstream theatre is radical and intense, and there’s a density of activity like nowhere else. It’s a culture that permits risk, but also the full-time engagement of artists, especially actors. I hadn’t experienced this.”

While searching for the contemporary plays he wanted to direct, Andrews encountered English translations of German plays through London’s Royal Court Theatre, and found the work of Marius von Mayenburg and “a great friendship unsought for.” Andrews premiered the playwright’s Fireface in Australia and David Gieselmann’s Mr Kolpert, which von Mayenburg had premiered as a director in Germany. Von Mayenburg found Andrews’ STC account of Chekhov’s Three Sisters unlike any he had encountered, but felt at home with the director’s vision and an invitation to direct at the Schaubühne later ensued. In turn, Andrews found himself “feeling at home at the Schaubühne, close to the actors with their belief in [artistic director] Thomas Ostermeier’s vision. The directors and writers are of my generation, text-based, and in an intense engagement with theatre making.” Andrews makes it clear, however, that it’s not German theatre alone that interests him, but theatre that challenges him: working in Germany has allowed him to experience the vision of the likes of great Swiss director Christoph Marthaler. He’s also adamant that his interests are not limited to German plays, which leads him to comment that, “anyway, Mr Kolpert is the most un-German of plays.”

From early on, reviewing Andrews’ work in these pages, I saw an integrative vision, a creative deployment of performer, sound, image and mise en scene common to contemporary performance (which Andrews wrote about for RealTime from Europe and New York) which soon grew to become his own. The stage designs had a kinship with contemporary visual arts, design and sound, and the performances were rooted in languages other than naturalism. Andrews says this tendency went back to student days, pre-dating his German encounters, and with a wariness “of theatre that was decorative. Theatre demands to be an artform with every element part of a discourse, a poetry machine, always engaged with the ongoing question of what theatre is.”

Andrews describes von Mayenburg’s Eldorado as “a luminous nightmare”, an experience, I have to say, conjured by a reading of the script alone. He sees himself attracted to plays that have a sense of fable (most evident in Caryl Churchill’s Far Away): “even Blackbird, with its extreme naturalism, has that sense.” How does a fabulist deal with reality? Andrews describes von Mayenburg’s Cold Child as “a fractured cubist nightmare of overlapping realities.” In Eldorado it’s the overlapping of realities (there’s some kind of war going on) and fantasies (what kind of war?), with the play’s opening words conjuring bizarre horrors with kinship to Churchill’s grim fantasia in Far Away.

Another, related preoccupation is with distance. Andrews feels that it’s been common to his work whether it’s emotional distance, which can become explosive, or the distance that keeps us from the brute realities of the Balkan wars or Iraq. In Eldorado, he says, near and far come together in “overlapping cities”, in the kind of world described by urban theorist Paul Virilio. The city in this play is no Eldorado, no city of gold, although it is wished to be by at least one of the characters. It is a city at war, but with few signs of it as its bourgeois inhabitants continue the struggle with art, relationships and the property market. “The play was written March to May 2003”, says Andrews, “when Bush and company were invading Iraq and we were submitted to a constant stream of war pornography in the media, bringing the war near but keeping it far. In his fabulation, von Mayenburg has the city being reconstructed as it’s being annihilated.” Such is the Neo-Con fantasy in Baghdad.

A summary of the plot of Eldorado wouldn’t tell you much; its power and meanings reside in the way it overlaps realities, plays with near and far in the most intimate manner, distorts your sense of time in the curious entries into scenes and the cutting away from them (“it’s not blackout theatre”, declares Andrews), avoids expository explanation and speaks to you through a language that is deceptively lucid and littered with gripping images.

Andrews describes von Mayenburg’s dramaturgy as “cellular”, as always referring to the space around the immediate world of the play, never separate from the larger world, although not literally connected. It’s a dream world, a nightmare of connections and associations, in which, like Noh theatre, ghosts can appear as a matter of course. This connectedness yields what appears to be a nihilistic vision in which, says Andrews, “we are all complicit, we are all guilty, all culpable, as an orgy of annihilation is enacted on a city, but no one person is blamed in Eldorado. That’s for the audience to think about.” There’s something about von Mayenburg’s language, about his vision that Andrews describes as “sophisticated, but crazy, like a child, a child’s eye view” which estranges us from the world, making us look at it again. Thekla, the pianist, haunted by visions of a worsening war, pregnant and alienated by her husband’s secrecy, is losing her art, afraid to “put my hands into that elephant’s mouth.” The feverishness of the language reminds Andrews of Buchner and the young Brecht.

Played through a 12 metre glass wall and radio miked, the otherwise sparely staged Eldorado promises to be quite an experience, not least because it deploys talented performers of the calibre of Gillian Jones, Robert Menzies, Alison Whyte, Bojana Novakovic and Greg Stone.

Malthouse Theatre, Eldorado, writer Marius von Mayenburg, translator Maja Zade, director Benedict Andrews, design Anna Tregloan, lighting Paul Jackson, sound Max Lyandvert, June 10-July 2,

The premiere production of Marius von Mayenburg’s THE COLD CHILD (Das Kalte Kind) will be staged at The Stables Theatre July 12 – August 5 directed by Anthony Skuse. For more information go to the Stablemates section

RealTime issue #73 June-July 2006 pg. 15

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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