A Play About Nothing — the Nothing of Pretentious People in the Arts

Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts
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A scene from 'Woodcutters' ('Holzfällen'), based on a novel by the Austrian author Thomas Bernhard.Credit: Natalii Kabanow
Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts

WARSAW — Like everything else, the theater — as a genre and experience — is divided into three categories. The most common is a theater troupe, managed by artistic and other directors, which performs in its home theater and sells its wares to subscribers and groups (or in regional halls that buy series of plays).
Here the focus is usually the theater organization whose goal is existence; that is; not to lose money. That’s why such organizations receive public subsidies (which are modest in Israel), and are careful to put on plays that will make money.

This is the mainstream of theater anywhere. The result is high quality (in the best case) and the repertoire is middle of the road. There are classics, of course, and contemporary plays that both speak and pass the time. There certainly are original plays (which usually make a profit), and a bit of innovative experimental work.

Alongside this mainstream is the famous “fringe,” where people can be daring because they’re not dependent on the audience. But there are limits because there aren’t enough resources for impressive special effects, or even for revamping a well-known play in an innovative way.

These limitations challenge creativity, and the independence from the box office encourages a bit of prattling. But it’s also fertile ground for groundbreaking aesthetics that can later be put on — or put their creators on — major stages where one can insist on not becoming too bourgeois.

But there is also a third type of theater: theater festivals around the world. This is the elite genre that patronizes the audience.

After all, the real audience are the people who “understand theater” in the eyes of others and themselves — they arrogantly hold themselves above the “rest of the theater,” which is institutionalized and tries to ingratiate itself with the audience, or the marginal that dabbles in insulting the audience. It speaks in hifalutin language, in all seriousness and with full intent, about the “future of the theater” and its essence.

To a certain extent, this genre — productions by a director and his troupe to be marketed in festivals around the world — is designed to combine the groundbreaking innovation and unripe chutzpah of fringe with the knowledge, professionalism and maturity of mainstream people, whether past or present. Most of all, the idea is to enjoy the absence of budget constraints.

Here creators of theater who have something to say — whether men or women — can set free their megalomania. They can be both creator and designer, and the devoted audience (some audiences migrate from festival to festival; some are the managers of festivals) can worship it or disavow it. The main thing is to keep on bouncing around the world.

From Be’er Sheva to Marylin Monroe

One festival performance I saw recently was “Woodcutters” (“Holzfällen”), based on a novel by the Austrian author Thomas Bernhard and adapted and directed by Polish director Krystian Lupa. The play was produced by the Polish Theater in Wroclaw but was cast with Lupa’s actors from previous productions of his. I saw it at a festival of the best of Polish theater, but it’s clear that it’s intended — both in form and content — for theater festivals around the world.

Lupa, 71, belongs to the first generation — the veteran one already — of innovative Polish theater directors who are well-known in all of Europe — and even in Israel. He directed at the Be’er Sheva Theater 20 years ago; he created a play based on Bernhard’s “The Lime Works” (“Das Kalkwerk”).

Since then Lupa has returned to Bernhard. Meanwhile, in 2009 he won the European Theatre Prize, and he has directed two biographical plays since then — one on Marilyn Monroe and one on Simone Weil. But somehow they say in Poland he has run out of steam.

As is proper for festival performances, and for an artist of Lupa’s stature, the recent play was performed not in a regular theater but in a television studio near Warsaw. On one side a stage was built, but it wasn’t elevated. The audience sat on a grandstand facing the stage.

The stage was very broad and featured a huge, transparent cube-like mass that could be turned. Sure enough, between scenes the stagehands turned it, so we could watch the cube in all its sides and angles. Above the stage and alongside it sat video screens.

The play started with a video interview with the actress — a dancer named Joanna who was supposed to hold a seminar in the national theater to teach actors to mold their characters via the way they walk. But no actors came, and the interviewer torments her in order to draw out a response on her apparent failure.

During the play the cube allows one to see other rooms in the home of the couple hosting the party, and since there is no limit to the projection and lighting effects, the huge space can suddenly look like a church (where Bernhard and Joanna once put on a play named “The Naked Princess,” in which both of them were naked, of course). It turns out that Joanna had committed suicide and the whole evening is basically a long dinner in her memory, in which the characters talk mostly about themselves, not about her.

It’s impossible not to be amazed by the huge technical challenge and the way this colossal and complex mechanism works perfectly, all the while under complete technical control with so many possibilities. Not for a minute is the illusion created that this is “happening on its own.” The audience is constantly aware of the machinery of the theater in action.

Forget social protest

Lupa is also a master of audience participation. After the video interview with Joanna we see a dining-room table. The characters arriving at the couple’s home cross the entire stage to hang up their coats. The viewers find themselves following with bated breath the path of every character.

And just as Lupa isn’t constrained by meager financial or technical resources, he doesn’t limit himself with the need to take the audience into account. The performance lasts almost five hours, with one intermission. There are long drawn-out scenes with dialogue coming from characters who mostly talk about themselves.

Not a lot happens in the play in terms of plot. The viewers finds themselves spending a long evening in the characters’ company, with a narrator who seems as if he’s outside the story. He expresses his negative opinions about the characters — and offsets any attempt by the viewer to show even a bit of compassion toward these characters.

And that, maybe, is another characteristic of the plays at these festivals. They allow themselves the freedom — the selfishness — not to do theater to make money, or for a political or social protest.

This performance deals with the nothingness of the pretentious people of the arts. They try to convince everyone (including themselves) that they’re “creative artists,” while in reality they’re pathetic opportunists. Time and money is invested in a play of navel-gazing artists, while all around the world be damned.

But after nearly five hours, the audience has learned they’re watching a group of pathetic people whose art is seriously in doubt. And on the evening of remembrance for a friend who passed on — those who cherish her memory say almost nothing about her (but only about themselves) — the storyteller ends the play fleeing the apartment where the meal was held. He says to himself (and us) that he hates the people he spent the evening with, but at the same time he loves them too.

And that’s how I felt at the end of this exhausting performance, but not a wearying one. And if my sense of smell doesn’t deceive me, and the Israel Festival rises like a phoenix from the ashes, I’ll see Lupa’s “Woodcutters” there too.