• Sigita Ivaškaitė

Perspectives / The new Reigen in Salzburg

Well known in Lithuania for her directing works, Yana Ross is seen as a local here. At the same time this is what she appears to achieve everywhere – arrive and thrive in local context, language even, pointing out the harshest flows of the country. As one might have already read in the Salzburger Festspiele program, this might be easily connected to her mixed descent. Mixing and remixing are also the keywords for the new production of Reigen, based on the classic, once scandalous Arthur Schnitzler’s scenes. It is not the first time that Ross encounters the piece, - in 2010 she staged it in Vilnius, Lithuanian National Drama Theatre. To be fair, I don’t remember much of that show now and I don’t think I had enough experience to evaluate it at the time, but the concept of the new production made so much sense that I knew it will be worth the trip.

Yana Ross_photo - Lucie Jansch

Ten writers got a scene each and did their own variations. Just dancing solos in their own circle, creating new moves. And so Ross became a choreographer of drama, using each of the “dancers” autonomous bodies, movements, and possibilities to make a reflection of what our society looks like today. Who is in charge, what or who do we love the most, and which part of sex – the love making, or the gender act – shocks us more? Of course, if it wasn’t for the russia’s war against Ukraine, that started already in the process of rehearsals, the Reigen might have been purer, concentrated to the power play between genders and social classes (it still has that), but now the many connections of dramaturgical material have gotten political and war themed. And, oh, how those soldiers of Schnitzler’s time go well with our war now.

Why ours? Well, if you have this kind of question this show is exactly for you!

You see, while watching this production I felt this clear tone of the director, talking to the western people about the reality of oligarchs, power play, the truth of the oppressed, and the ABC of the war in Ukraine. But it starts local. At least in the first scene written by Lydia Haider. Here, for German speaking audience the writer prepares a performance of several meanings, clearly pointed to Austrian society, that makes an over-the-top start with expressive acting in many ways. I mean, when the first scene already has an anal stimulation, one can assume the piece got the sex making out of their way and will be proceeding to their point from now on.

And the point is always about the power play. In the lovely, classical, high-end café interior designed by Márton Ágh, lives the wealthy. Without a word, dare I say, in a Brechtian concreteness, a man with a cigar (Michael Neuenschwander) and a nervous woman (Sibylle Canonica) enter freely. While all their companions, joining the table later, must go through a security check. Throughout the performance they will represent the wealthy man in the ultimate power position, and a woman, trying to survive between the goodness of the life and the truth that she must hide from herself.

Reigen_photo - Lucie Jansch

Canonica’s nervousness goes through all her scenes, reaching painful highpoints in Leïla Slimani’s and Hengameh Yaghoobifarah writings, culminating in pure madness in the finale of Lukas Bärfuss. In Slimani’s story she is the wife on a well-known man accused of rape, trying to believe him, and obviously failing inside. No words needed. We know these women, some of us even despise them as much as feel sorry for their feebleness.

Then in Yaghoobifarah’s story Canonica becomes the older women, seeking attention from her young partner. Both times she is opposed to a young woman played by Tabita Johannes. And not the opposition of actresses is important, but the collision of generations. It seems that despite everything, writers and Ross sees the ageing and the youngest women in no possible consensus (oh, yes women are in the center point here, there can be no question). Although we know that the first ones have gone through the same experiences as the others and should be able to provide help and support systems. Alas. Instead they look broken, physically and mentally, standing on a low, yet some kind of a step at the power ladder, not wanting to go all the way down again. And that is how is has been for a long time.

Reigen_photo-Lucie Jansch

Associatively, the before mentioned Yaghoobifarah’s scene involving a dysfunctional partnership, jumps back in time. Here a dialogue about character’s pseudonym as a writer is reinterpreted by Ross as a talk between a lesbian couple in the first half of the 20th century. And now, when one of them is wearing a militaristic uniform, the “pseudonym” might mean something else, right? With the help of cinema worthy Algirdas Gradauskas videos and meticulously precise costumes by Marysol del Castillo, Ross subtly jumps between our and Schnitzler’s times, reminding, that those are century-long themes and problems. As is the war.

Reigen_photo-Lucie Jansch

You see, one could say that the creator’s fixation on the war in Ukraine is forced and makes the cracks in the different style dramaturgical pieces even more visible, but the clash of the original time of the Reigen and our reality itself spells “Never again” so painfully. As of 24th of February, I believe that all wars do start in a time when the people have forgotten it. Like the world has forgotten the annexation of Crimea and ignored everything else that happened in between. Like many of us have already forgotten the raped girls with their teeth pulled out in Bucha. We heard about them in March, April? But we forgot them. And they are still alive, they are still surviving the trauma that will never end. And now I do believe, that until you yourself are in danger or have the trauma in your DNA you cannot grasp it.

That is why the Skype video scene written by Mikhail Durnenkov is useful for the western public. And it was done precise, beginning with russian dramaturg, russian speaking actors from Lithuania, all of whom have a clear position on the war, but can deliver the mentality (and an obviously different acting school) that is so unknown for someone else. Son from Moscow (Valentin Novopolskij) calls his parents in Tomsk (Inga Mashkarina, Vladimir Serov) and breaks out the truth about war and his own family moving to Helsinki, only to take it all back. One more clash of generations. But here, not even the elders didn’t do better, but the youngers know they already failed and probably ruined their kid’s life. And as good as these actors are, one might start feeling sad for their characters, but they still are not the victims. They are merely tools.

Reigen_photo-Lucie Jansch

And these tools either don’t know the truth or feel disempowered to do anything with it. There comes the entourage – everyone outside the physical war. This will not break from inside, that’s where “our war” comes in. And this is what the actors are dancing about. In a few memorable laps of classical russian ballet forms, and later in beautiful quotations of Pina Bausch, these wealthy people are asked to choose by whose music, whose culture will they be dancing around? At the same time, with soft ironical smile do we think of “Café Müller” and what relationships are we analyzing now… It brings us back to the start and... women. Do not act surprised.

Reigen_photo-Lucie Jansch

Honestly, my favorite scene is written by Sharon Dodua Otoo. Here two grown women asks Siri for a 5 min pause at the same time, while sitting in the same restaurant. And, again, being completely honest, the concept itself makes me very emotional. The idea of two strangers, two women having a great time together, two women of different background, social position etc. partnering up for their own time. Of course, to hold on to the line of generations, these two look like being the same age, at least mentally being in the same maturity. You can say that nothing happens, but the beauty of the actresses Lena Schwartz and Yodit Tarikwa and their partnership, sorority on stage is what women all over the world are craving for. This is what they are looking – a comprehension without judgement. This is the goal. And we all want it. We could have it if we would just stop and look after each other...

Reigen_photo-Lucie Jansch

Buuuuut we all know that for that to happen we have to break the patriarchy and its rotten systems of dragging our self esteem downhill. In most recent times #metoo and #timesup movements were trying to do that. Dramaturg Leïla Slimani dealt with these narratives in her story that describes a court session of a rape charge. I have mentioned it before shortly. Here Tabita Johannes character has this strange dream, maybe even a fantasy while having her diner. A fantasy of getting in control of her case. Here every actor involved gets to ask one or more questions, again and again pushing the women to relive the rape, because “Your story is the only thing we have”. These are the questions that pushes the “jury” or, you know, everyone around to try to evaluate is the victim really the victim…

This absurdity is well crowned with the self-loving man in power, played perfectly by Matthias Neukirch. He, like a schoolboy, is sure that that he is getting the attention only because he is so cool, and everyone wants him. And Johannes is running around, trying to prove herself to the people that are not even necessarily real. At the same time, she tries to wash her hands, her face, her body, and clothes off the trauma. But we all know that is not going to happen. In the end, all her bothers are left on stage as a skin without the body, just her wet clothes lying on the floor. We have this great saying in Lithuanian “liko tik šlapia vieta” and to have a nice direct translation would serve the reader well… But for now, I can say that this scene has its strength in the exact way it is made. We are not asked to cry, to feel sorry. You just sit there and hope for her to finally be heard.

Reigen_photo-Lucie Jansch

It seems that writers do have their faith in this young generation. Johannes becomes the strong hero in Sofi Oksanen’s piece about a self-proclaimed hacker but more of an internet troll. A usually faceless scary man on the internet that in real life has nothing more than his electronic devices and no emotional maturity or stability for that matter. Played very convincingly by Urs Peter Halter and, once again, I must say, with the help of del Castillo costumes, this dialogue was quite a natural one to watch.

And then Halter’s character sends voice message, saying “Zelenskiy is a nazzi” and some people in the audience gasps so loud... Why? I mean, why the gasp? Is it fair for me to conclude they have not heard the kremlin propaganda machine creating these narratives IRL? Or those people live in their safe social bubbles? Or the gasping in the scene of two women, where one of them admits she never wanted any kids (she has 3) and then mimes killing them. Like there are no women that has thought of not having the kids that they have? Is this the truth that hurts so much? Just those thoughts? But no one gasps at rape, toxic male dominance and the obvious narrative of the wealthy selling their country and people. Am I out of context here?

Reigen_photo-Lucie Jansch

What brings me, as a theatre person, back into it, is the two beautiful (once again, the costumes are exquisite) scenes with Schwartz and Tarikwa as actresses in Mary Stuart and Queen Elizabeth costumes. Writers Kata Wéber and Jonas Hassen Khemiri creates individual stories for a man and a woman in theatre, but when they go one after another, the spectator may well understand that it can be the same woman. The same diva that must go over these absurd conversations about her age, decide whether to fuck the director this time, worry about how much diversity theatre makers will ask now and, finally, answer to herself is art, paid with oligarchs’ money, is separate from politics?

Although Schwartz gets the stage first and takes us into this realm, the decision to give Tarkiwa the second scene is even stronger. Because she, as a black actress in this golden Queens costume with a confidence bigger than any rich man in front of her, is as empowering and as unifying at once. She is everything Schwartz’s character is afraid of. But for Ross the two women are the same. And that is powerful, simply reminding that being afraid of diversity is just being afraid of yourself.

Reigen_photo-Lucie Jansch

And that brings us to the very end, where we meet the man without the cigar this time and his woman. Probably not the wife now, or maybe it is her, just gone mad from being the silent supporter and thus becoming the loud accomplice? Either way it is not really them, who decides, it is the soldier with a gun, who points. Bärfuss writes the scene in English, but to my ear that does more harm and puts the abstraction of the scene over the top. Of course, here we have the wealthy that are selling the country and all of this mad money – war driven world that is being pushed to the nervous edges and trembling mirrors.

Reigen_photo-Lucie Jansch

The social construct that is us, in fact is a puzzling thing. And it is more complicated than a century ago. Even if we still have those “boring” couples as in Leif Randt’s lovely post-quarantine dialogue, something there might be off. It all still turns around. The characters, the writers, the dance happens. But it is not a marvelous waltz. It is a puzzle from many countries and many views, as seen from a point of Ross.

Is there a feeling, that she works better with a “one flow” material? Yes. Can one feel the strongest and weakest parts of every author? Yes. Does it annoy one a bit? Maybe. On the other hand, Ross’s dedication to give each writer their equal time and voice on stage is admirable. Surely, her being this 11th voice between them all, sometimes can give a feeling of a forced moral, but she is a dedicated ally that uses her position to speak up on what is the most important today. And she is consistent in doing that: the west must understand their influence in making deals with terrorists. It is all connected, like the people that are individuals and masses at once. We shape each other’s fate. It is just a question of what role will we get this time. This is a theme that recurs in most of Ross’s works. And sometimes we are just the “extras of life”, like the waiters in Reigen, eating leftovers from the rich, closing our eyes at what is happening. But what if we would all speak out?

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