Broken women, made whole on stage

HAMBURG, Germany – Anyone who has seen the 2020 film “Pieces of a Woman”, on Netflix or on the big screen, won’t soon forget its 22-mi...


HAMBURG, Germany – Anyone who has seen the 2020 film “Pieces of a Woman”, on Netflix or on the big screen, won’t soon forget its 22-minute single-take opening scene of a home birth. For those who haven’t seen Kornel Mundruczo’s film yet, I won’t give too much away by saying that things go wrong in this technically dazzling sequence.

The effect is remarkably similar to what Mundruczo, a Hungarian director, staged for the TR Warszawa theater in Warsaw in his 2018 production of “Pieces of a Woman”, which was recently performed at the Thalia theater in Hamburg. (The piece is in the repertoire of TR Warszawa and will be next tour in Naples, Italy, in MarchThe birth takes place largely behind closed doors, and the audience watches a live video feed that is projected onto the front of the closed set. As in the film, Mundruczo brings us to life in a single crush, without cuts to allow the viewer to catch his breath.

If the comparisons between films and the plays on which they are based have their limits, the stage version is all in all richer, more intimate and better imagined than the one on the screen.

The play’s author, Kata Weber, who is Mundruczo’s wife, treats the heart-wrenching birth as the prologue to a masterfully lengthy dinner. At nearly two hours, it’s a family meal that feels like a full-fledged one-act drama.

It’s been six months since the tragic evening that opens the room, and the grieving woman and her husband show up for a roast duck and painful revelations. Unlike the cinema, who was a vehicle for her star, Vanessa Kirby (which won Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival as well as an Oscar), the stage version is less a character study than a portrait of how the relationships between parents, children, siblings and partners unravel in the wake of a tragedy.

In the lead role, Maja, Justyna Wasilewska, is emotionally naked and intense in her grief, but also full of wit and dazzling liveliness. But Mundruczo surrounds him with six actors whose extraordinary performances make him a real ensemble piece. There’s Dobromir Dymecki as Maja’s charming engineer husband Lars, who, fearing to face his grief head-on, falls into immaturity and inappropriate behavior. There is Magdalena Kuta as Maja’s stern adoptive mother, who invited a parent lawyer (Marta Scislowicz, who is more cautious than a calculator) in hopes of convincing Maja to take legal action against the midwife. .

Despite all the sharp words, machinations and recriminations, the extended scene is neither gloomy nor gloomy. Instead, the serious themes are crisscrossed with humor, pathos and ironic twists reminiscent of Chekhov or Bergman. When Maja and her competitive stepsister (Agnieszka Zulewska) twirl around the dining room with gymnastic ribbons to the 1980s Italian pop hit “Felicità”, the exuberant moment provides a sort of wordless catharsis. Although Maja has suffered an unimaginable blow, we understand that she is far from broken: not because she has moved on, but because she has the courage to come to terms with her pain. Defiantly, she acknowledges her loss, but refuses to be defined by it.

The desire to recognize and understand past traumas as a way out of them also drives Annie Ernaux’s work. This French writer has been putting her life on the page for nearly five decades, both in autobiographical fiction and in memories. Her 2016 coming-of-age memoir “A Girl’s Story” was released in English in 2020 and introduced American readers to its precise and incandescent style.

A new bedroom adaptation of the novel to Munich Residenztheater, “Erinnerung eines Mädchens” (“Memory of a Girl”, according to the title of the book in German and French), is directed by the young Italian Silvia Costa, who distributes text extracts from Ernaux’s memoirs between three performers of the permanence of the theater set of actors.

Sibylle Canonica, Juliane Köhler and Charlotte Schwab each bring slightly different readings to the text and memories of Ernaux, half a century old. The play begins in 1958, when 18-year-old Annie Duchesne takes a job as a counselor at a summer camp and has her first sexual experiences, including a messy encounter with the older senior counselor, whom she falls in love with. Although the tone is often cold and impartial, the effect is poetic and intimate as Ernaux explores the storehouse of his memories with frankness, honesty and analytical rigor.

The trio of middle-aged actresses Costa hires to recount Ernaux’s reminiscences suggests less a bursting of oneself than a multiplication of consciousness. Canonica, Köhler and Schwab move around the intimate black box of the Residenztheater’s smallest stage, the Marstall, performing an almost continuous series of actions. Some, like the frequent costume changes, clearly suggest fluid transitions between times and places; others, such as elaborate rituals involving screens, mirrors, glasses of milk, stones, string, earth and clay figures of body parts, allude to the mysterious mechanisms of memory . The production’s powerful coda, in which the actresses enter a hidden photo lab and print a portrait of young Ernaux (it appears on the cover of the book in the United States), suggests that mental recall functions as a darkroom where the past can be developed, enlarged and fixed.

The staging is delicate, but with a solid structure and rhythm that guides the viewer through the fast 80-minute production. The way Costa makes a spoken word performance go smoothly and organically is impressive. One of the rare missteps is Ayumi Paul’s original score, which at times overwhelms moderate emotions on stage and makes it difficult to listen to actresses.

Watching this show reminded me of one of the best recent productions of the Residenztheater, The reinvention of “Lulu” by Bastian Kraft in which Frank Wedekind’s anti-heroine is hosted by three actresses, including Köhler and Schwab. This multiplication made sense, in part because of the myriad archetypes of femininity that the character embodies.

On the other hand, it is difficult to know what the multiple casting of “Memory of a Girl” is supposed to convey. It just might be that Costa wants to take advantage of the excellent actresses available to him. But I wonder if there was a deeper purpose to the way the director divided the role beyond providing a more dynamic way of bringing the book to the stage than having the text go to a single performer.

“Am I dissolving the 1958 girl and the 2014 woman into one ‘me’? “Ernaux wonders in” Memory of a girl “. The questioning of a fragmented or dissociated consciousness may seem peculiar to the art of writing. Yet Costa, like Mundruzco, finds eminently theatrical ways to make us understand a broken and restored woman.

Pieces of a woman. Directed by Kornel Mundruzco. In the repertoire of TR Warszawa in Warsaw.
Remember a girl. Directed by Silvia Costa. Until December 28 at the Residenztheater in Munich.

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