In Salzburg, new lives for two outrageous plays

SALZBURG, Austria — The 1920 premiere of Arthur Schnitzler’s “Reigen” sparked a riot in a Berlin theater. A year later, in Vienna, the ...


SALZBURG, Austria — The 1920 premiere of Arthur Schnitzler’s “Reigen” sparked a riot in a Berlin theater. A year later, in Vienna, the works were closed by the police. Shortly after, the playwright, prosecuted for indecency, banned further performances in Germany and Austria. The play, a love story carousel with a cast of characters from all walks of life, was not performed in German again until 1982, more than half a century after Schnitzler’s death. Instead, its fame spread in translation, including French film adaptations by Max Ophüls and Roger Vadim.

Last week, a new piece inspired by Schnitzler’s scandal hit premiered at the Salzburg Festival, where it was one of two reworked classics during the opening days of the event. The Salzburg Festival is, of course, best known for its musical offerings, including the high-profile opera premieres it rolls out every summer, but theater is Salzburg’s oldest tradition, dating back to the production of Jedermann by Hugo von Hofmannsthal which opened the first festival, in 1920. These days, the festival plays draw a more diverse crowd than the exorbitantly priced operas, but Salzburg remains a top-notch event and the audience is more upmarket (and generally older) than your typical viewers. in Berlin or Hamburg.

For her Salzburg debut, Latvian American director Yana Ross asked European writers under 50 to design new scenes using “Reigen,” a cycle of 10 pre- and post-coital dialogues, as a rough guide. The result is a tribute to the 21st century that bears little resemblance to the original. As an anthology of short dramatic texts by a diverse group of established and emerging writers, it is both varied and, perhaps inevitably, uneven.

Ross strings them together in a beautiful production set in an upscale restaurant. Throughout the evening, the constantly moving couples meet to share the quiet intimacy of a meal, the tables and their occupants reflected in a large tilted mirror. The seven main actors dance from stage to stage to the tunes of “La Valse” by Maurice Ravel or electronic and pop music.

It feels like a faux pas to start production with a tough, experimental retelling of the original play’s opening scene: a tryst between an eager prostitute and a reluctant soldier. The poetic rewriting, by the Austrian Lydia Haider, mixing exacerbated and vulgar speech, is a disconcerting entry into the play. And that of the Swiss playwright Lukas Bärfuss The disturbing and surreal version of the final scene, where the erotic carousel comes full circle, is equally disorienting and cryptic.

In the meantime, however, the production is on firmer footing, starting with Finnish author Sofi Oksanen’s resolutely contemporary retelling of the play’s second dialogue, between a soldier and a maid.

In Oksanen’s version, a man flirts over the intercom with his food delivery courier, then panics when she accepts his invitation to share his dinner. In front of her, he is painfully awkward. Eventually, she finds out that her client is a far-right internet troll, a revelation that spoils any attraction she might have felt. Tabita Johannes lends the mail a coy curiosity before lashing out at the creep that lured her into her living room. It’s one of many dazzling turns by Johannes, who, like much of the cast, belongs to the ensemble of actors at Zurich’s Schauspielhaus, where production will move in September. (The majority of “Reigen” writers are female, and female characters are generally better written and more interesting than male ones.)

Johannes also appears as a woman who accuses her boss of forcing himself on her, in a #MeToo-era twist on Schnitzler’s dialogue between a young man and a maid. In the scene, by French-Moroccan author Leïla Slimani, the woman takes her employer to court, where she recounts her serial abuse in painful detail. Elsewhere, Johannes shows her seductive and manipulative side as the clandestine lover of an older author, in a scene by Berlin writer Hengameh Yaghoobifarah who is the only one to come close to the sexy side of the original play.

Several other episodes are awkward, including one by Hungarian author Kata Weber, about an actress in her late forties who is terrified that her career will evaporate in middle age. Despite Lena Schwarz’s flamboyant performance, the episode comes across as cliche and seems off topic.

The production’s biggest bet is a Skype conversation between a mother and her son, written by Russian author Mikhail Durnenkov. (Split-screen video is projected on stage.)

Durnenkov, who now lives in Finland, rewrote the segment after Russia invaded Ukraine in February. The opening argument, about a family friend being arrested for kissing a man during a protest, works better than the son’s later revelation that he is going into exile. “As long as we live here, they wage war on our behalf. I will not give them that right,” he says, struggling to convince his conservative mother. I can understand Durnenkov’s desire to make an anti-war statement, but his ideas are poorly dramatized and it’s unclear how his scene relates to the others.

Several years after “Reigen” premiered, Berlin sparked another legendary Weimar Republic theater scandal with a 1929 production of Marieluise Fleisser’s “Pioneers in Ingolstadt.” Set in the Bavarian hometown of Fleisser, the play follows the fortunes of a young woman, Berta, who falls in love with Korl, a callous soldier stationed in town to fix a broken bridge. Audiences were shocked by the play’s depiction of sexism and small-town military cruelty, embellished for the first time by Bertolt Brecht, who co-directed the production and staged the scene where Berta loses her virginity to of Korl in an onstage shed that shook during their lovemaking. .

In the new Salzburg Festival production by Ivo van Hove, this scene is much more explicit than anything Brecht could have done. The Belgian director stages it unambiguously as a rape scene, with Korl pinning Berta as she screams and thrashes in the shallow water that covers most of the large scene. It is one of many acts of violence – stoning, torture, drowning, etc.

Van Hove, who makes his festival debut with this co-production with Vienna’s Burgtheater, where he will transfer in September, merged “Pioneers in Ingolstadt” with an earlier piece by Fleisser, “Purgatory in Ingolstadt,” about a pregnant schoolgirl and a former classmate with a savior complex. A new screenplay, by Koen Tachelet, weaves the two plays together seamlessly, but not entirely convincingly. The actors bring Fleisser’s cold, hard dialogue to life in emotionally raw performances, but they’re miserable company to spend two and a half hours with. All this water on stage cannot wash away the humiliation and suffering. Nor did all the violence and cruelty of the staging produce a thrill of outrage. Instead of a riot, the festival audience responded with polite and generous applause.

Regen. Directed by Yana Ross. Salzburg Festival until August 11.
Ingolstadt. Directed by Ivo van Hove. Salzburg Festival until August 7.

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