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October 1, 2013 5:12 pm
Nothing is more ominous to the theatregoer than a request from house staff before curtain-up that audience members should “leave the auditorium only in case of necessity”. Such warnings have been ubiquitous recently in Paris; the implication is that we, the feeble public, should try harder when the going gets tough. It’s a patronising attitude and, in the case of Krystian Lupa’s Perturbation, which ran to almost five hours on opening night, I offer my heartfelt support to the third or so of the audience who braved the Théâtre de la Colline’s wrath and walked out.
The Polish director has returned to Thomas Bernhard for this new production, which premiered in Lausanne in early September. Perturbation is an adaptation of Verstörung, one of the Austrian writer’s early novels, otherwise known as Gargoyles in English; Disturbance would be a more literal translation of the German title, as well as a good definition of both Bernhardt’s unsettling work and Lupa’s problematic response.
In Perturbation, a rural Austrian doctor takes his student son with him on his daily rounds. As they drive from one desolate house to another, the son is introduced to a pathetic gallery of patients in various states of decline: ironically, his coming-of-age story involves a demonstration of the slow decay of humanity. Their final call is at the castle of Prince Saurau, where the story grinds to a halt as their eccentric host takes over the narration with rambling monologues.
Lupa pours beautiful theatrical invention into the first part. As the son tells his story, video projections show him with his father on the side of a road, smoking and attempting to communicate; when the doctor appears on stage, it is with the same weary posture. The houses they visit pop out of the set like dolls’ houses; between calls, video returns to show the duo on the road, with a large arrow on the ground indicating their direction – that is, nowhere.
The production goes awry when it reaches the castle. Vocal projection is an issue Lupa never resolves, which prompted one audience member to yell in anger at the stage; much of the Prince’s lengthy first monologue was lost. Another scene (invented by Lupa) involves two pairs of characters, Saurau’s sisters and daughters, conducting unrelated conversations over each other. Clarity is key to getting Bernhard’s voice across, but Lupa’s “theatre of revelation” draws out the novel to tedious length, and the last three hours fail spectacularly to make sense of the grim existential questions the author asks. All the ingredients are there, including a strong cast, but only a more lucid production could bring them out.
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