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Bürgtheater – Trilogie des Wiedersehens: Slow and dated

This past Sunday was my first trip to Bürgtheater as a full-fledged German speaker. Dear Astrid had lured me there in a previous life as a non-German speaker. She was adamant that I must see their astonishing work.

Somehow with Astrid we ended up somewhere in the galleries. It was more a feeling of alienation and awe. Something Shakespearian with much murder. Theatre in a language one doesn’t speak is rarely a winning hand so I was loathe to make any judgement. We also attended a number of charming small pieces in the Casino at Schwarzenbergplatz, far more successful.

But this time for Trilogie des Wiedersehens Radoslava and I were in the second row of the main stage.

Comfortable and close enough to make a clear judgement.

Trilogie des Wiedersehens is set in real time at an art exhibit organized by Moritz. It seems that the whole town is there, from the doctor, to the printer, to the local writer. All the woman are there too in minidresses and pantsuits.

Trilogie des Wiedersehens 2
Trilogie des Wiedersehens, 2009

The whole town is there.
Photo by Reinhard Werner, Burgtheater.

Wonderfully enough there is a cast of sixteen in the Trilogie des Wiedersehens. Almost invariably, a play with a large cast will win my heart or at least my respect. A large cast gives the director so much richer a canvas to work with.

The setting is the 1970’s so many of the actors are wearing outrageous wigs, which sadly look like wigs. I don’t remember seeing my parents or their friends parading around in wigs in the 70’s so we are already started on a bad hair day.

I also don’t remember people screaming all the time in the 70’s or necessarily understand why they would be having sex in washrooms with people they don’t like. The second part is more credible.

The whole piece is made up of little conversational vignettes. The stage turns back and forth between the main exhibition hall with the food and drink and a little frequented back corridor nominally watched by a guard.

In each little vignette, more information comes to the surface about the past relationships and internal angst of each character. At first we devoured these cryptic exchanges seeking to make sense of the whole. As the characters screamed more and more we lost interest.

Trilogie des Wiedersehens 4
Trilogie des Wiedersehens, 2009

The whole piece is made up of little conversational vignettes.
Photo by Reinhard Werner, Burgtheater.

The mortally slow pace between vignettes didn’t help. I don’t know if the director was trying to show us that the seventies were indeed a slower time, but certainly to the people living in the seventies they didn’t perceive time as slow but it certainly appeared that way to us with twenty to thirty seconds between one vignette ending and another one starting.

Now both of us are busy people active in the economic sphere of life. Perhaps certain Austrians, students or bureaucrats would find the pace relaxingly realistic. But the slow pace distracted both of us from being able to enter into the piece.

It didn’t help that the characters were all dull and rather pathetic. None of them could be described as aspirational. And it seemed each actor was hellbent on mocking his or her own subject. A single exception: Juergen Maurer as the doctor was serious and persuasive. His role was near inconsequential but you felt that if Maurer had more to say, the play might actually go somewhere.

Portently he tells his shrill wife "Your low self esteem doesn’t allow anyone to say anything kind to you."

Instead we listened mainly to the incessant rants and shrieking of Susanne (Regina Fritsch) and Elfriede (Sabine Haupt). In the end, the characters were dull and hysterical, invoking little sympathy, whether via screaming or drunkeness or their inability to eat a sandwich without spilling cream all over themselves.

Trilogie des Wiedersehens 3
Trilogie des Wiedersehens, 2009

Instead we listened mainly to the incessant rants and shrieking.
Photo by Reinhard Werner, Burgtheater.

In short drunken idiots leading hideous lives.

The first act ends with all of the actors naked on stage standing in a posed group (carefully arranged to reduce pruriency to a minimum). The stage rotatates out again bringing them all to center and the lights drop.

The significance? That we are metaphorically naked before our friends and family. I don’t think I’ve seen anything at Bürgtheater which didn’t include nudity on stage. I love nudity on stage – it’s a great way to force a reaction. But here, nothing.

Strangely, the Austrian reviews of Trilogie des Wiedersehens are quite good. Perhaps we missed the humour. But having spent over one and a half hours with the crowd on stage, neither Radoslava nor I had any wish to spend any more time with them.

We left at the half, relieved to be spared more of the shrieking and base accusations.

In terms of the stagecraft, the set and the lighting were of a high level. The costumes were acceptable but kitschy and exaggerated, a grotesque. The acting was the same.

The one particularly clever piece of stagecraft is during the scenes in the main exhibition hall with the full cast present, the director contrives to have all of the conversational groups nod at one another as if the other were speaking. The actors each took a particular tick (a nod or a roll of the eyes) to the limit. Very droll and reminded me exactly of the sometimes surreal effect of being at a party: everyone feigning to listen to everyone else.

The Viennese worship their Bürgtheater (the second or third best stage in the German speaking lands according to the Viennese). Based on what we saw Sunday, they are nowhere near the Royal Shakespeare Company. Frankly I’d expect more engagement and conviction from a RADA graduation class. In grotesque, the top Moscow theatres would leave these lost souls wandering in limbo. They outplayed most of what you’d see in Toronto, which would be similarly emotionally vacant but even less persuasive.

This is not my last trip to Bürgtheater this year. I’ll give them another couple of chances to change my mind but Trilogie des Wiedersehens was not a good start. Surprising as with a huge ensemble cast and complicated relationships, it caters exactly to my taste.

Performance seen 15 September 2009.

Photos from Bürgtheater official publicity photos.

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