From a contemporary theater festival, Tales of art and survival

BERLIN – The theater, according to the Spanish director and performer Angelica Liddell , is a sacrificial act. In the opening minutes o...


BERLIN – The theater, according to the Spanish director and performer Angelica Liddell, is a sacrificial act. In the opening minutes of his new show, “Liebestod: The smell of blood does not leave my eyes, Juan Belmonte – Histoire (s) du Théâtre III”, she takes a razor blade and cuts her kneecaps and the backs of her hands. It is a “sacrifice in the name of the absurd”, she explains in a online teaser for production. “It is not a sacrifice in the pursuit of the greater good.”

“Liebestod” is the centerpiece of this year FIND Festival of the New International Theater at the Schaubühne Theater in Berlin, where many 2021 admissions flirt with the redemptive power of art as a tool of survival and transcendence.

The theatrical character that Liddell assumes in “Liebestod”, a play fueled by a monologue about art, religion, Wagner and bullfighting, is loud, angry, self-destructive and surprisingly musical.

When she’s not singing, cooing or yelling at Bach, Handel and the Spanish flamenco rumba, she lashes out at audiences for her mediocrity, hypocrisy and average tastes from a sparsely decorated stage whose yellow floor and the red curtains suggest an arena.

In long soliloquies, Liddell protests against the spiritual and aesthetic decadence of contemporary “culture”. She doesn’t spare herself the scathing criticism either. As a result, the production contains an ongoing commentary on its own art status.

“Liebestod” of course refers to “Tristan und Isolde” by Wagner. The term is often used as a shortcut for the radiant coda of the opera, where Isolde sings himself to death in a moment of transfiguring ecstasy. The aria is never heard in the production, although Liddell, dressed as a matador, recites the lyrics in the likeness of a stuffed bull.

While bullfighting is a main production trope, “Liebestod” is also awash in Catholic symbolism. Liddell renders the liturgy both disturbing and absurd, including in a scene in which she wipes her own blood with bread, which she then eats. There is also a double amputee disguised as Jesus and a coffin-shaped glass reliquary filled with live cats. Some of these images seem worthy of Buñuel (an artist Liddell revere), although the atheist filmmaker would rise from the dead to protest when Liddell endorses theocracy as a fix to a society based on secular values.

While she tears herself and her audience apart (some of whom have left; others giggled; most applauded heartily), it’s clear that Liddell sees art as a source of holy beauty. And as her directing approaches the culmination of the art she so venerates, Liddell makes us feel just how dazzled she is.

While Liddell performs as if every minute on stage is a struggle for survival, she isn’t the only person working at the festival for whom making art seems a matter of life and death. Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov spent 18 months under house arrest in Moscow on charges of embezzlement which are widely regarded as invented. During his long lockdown (and the coronavirus lockdowns that followed), Serebrennikov has staged plays, operas, films and even a ballet from a distance. Much of his work during the confinement era has dealt with persecution, paranoia, and even incarceration, suggesting therapeutic work on themes that feature prominently in the director’s new reality.

In 2017, Serebrennikov contacted Chinese photographer Ren Hang to develop a piece inspired by his striking images of provocation. Soon after, Hang jumped to his death and Serebrennikov’s freedom of movement was curtailed. From his living room he imagined “Outside,” a spooky double exhibition of himself and Hang which premiered at the Festival d’Avignon 2019.

At the start of the performance, American actor Odin Lund Biron plays a character who resembles his director. He talks with his shadow about life in confinement and under surveillance. These opening scenes, which portray a version of the director’s Kafkaesque ordeal from the inside, are the most spectacular in the play. Soon, however, Biron was almost supplanted by suave Russian actor Evgeny Sangadzhiev, who played the Chinese photographer. The scene is filled with beautiful bodies, many naked or in various stages of undressing.

Much of the next 90 minutes is a series of erotic choreographies that bring Hang’s photos to life. Although often striking, the long succession of tableaux vivants often seems arbitrary in its order and selection.

“Outside,” while less airtight than “Liebestod,” is also engaged in art that is frank about harnessing personal pain for the kind of rare beauty that can produce epiphany. Despite all their differences, these two shows reflect the sensitivity of artists who are not afraid to practice their art as an end in itself.

“I think making the theater a tool is death for the theater and death for art,” Liddell says in the “Liebestod” teaser. In the context of this year’s festival, that creed almost sounds like a warning to some of the other artists featured in the program.

In “Not the end of the world,” writer Chris Bush and director Katie Mitchell run the risk of using theater to lecture audiences on the dangers of climate change. Bush is an acclaimed young British playwright; Mitchell is arguably the most influential English theater maker working regularly on the continent. Unfortunately, their meeting is unfortunate.

The play alternates periods and intrigues at breakneck speed: a young climatologist interviewing for a postdoctoral position; a researcher who died during a research expedition; a woman delivering a eulogy for her mother.

To their credit, Bush and Mitchell have consciously avoided doing an activist play, but what they’ve given us is so slippery it’s very hard to navigate.

The wealth of obscure or cosmically weird anecdotes that are crammed into this collage-like text often makes the play resemble “Findings,” the back page of Harper’s magazine which compiles crazy facts from scientific journals.

In keeping with the theme of the piece, the entire production has been designed with sustainability in mind. The British team did not go to Berlin for rehearsals; the sets and costumes have been recycled or reused; and the sound and lighting of the show are propelled by two cyclists who pedal from the sides of the stage. Still, these facts don’t add much to the production.

Another British production at FIND, that of Alexander Zeldin “Love,” there is also the risk of “turning the theater into a tool”. First seen at the National Theater in London in 2016, it focuses on a family who have been suddenly evicted from their apartment and find themselves in an overcrowded shelter, struggling to maintain their dignity.

There are so many ways a play like this could go wrong, but “Love” is neither serious nor judgmental. The themes are so elegantly staged and the characters so beautiful rendered, that it ends up becoming politically urgent, almost on the sly; the emotional impact of production is surprising given its economy.

The huge set representing the dismal residence plays a focusing role – for the actors, I imagine, as well as for the audience. This is naturalistic theater at its best, evoking the work of filmmakers Mike Leigh and Ken Loach.

“Love” made me think that maybe Liddell is being too absolutist in his thinking. I’m not saying it’s easy, but in the hands of good artists, a theater sensitive to social and political issues can be an opportunity for beauty and transcendence.

FIND 2021 continues at the Schaubühne until October 10

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