Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Theatertreffen: Die letzten Zeugen (The Final Witnesses)

Only in Germany.

This was my thought for most of the duration of Die letzten Zeugen - a 2.5 hour long performance about the Holocaust, followed by 1.5 hours of forums with the survivors. Only in Germany, I thought, would this be on a stage and called theatre. Anywhere else, it's a lecture.

Actually, this play, performed in Berlin as part of the jury-selected section of Theatertreffen, is not German - it's Austrian. The stories of seven Holocaust survivors from Vienna, sent to the camps at Auschwitz and Dachau, are told by actors, while the survivors sit in the background listening (again) to their stories. Director Matthias Hartmann has placed emphasis squarely on the stories themselves, removing almost anything that might be considered direction, save for a solitary writer sitting centre-stage who transcribes as the actors speak. There's an oddly formal process, too, for when the actor's story finished and they exit the stage, escorted by the actor who voiced them.

Anywhere else, and on any other topic, such earnestness would be considered parody. Here, it serves as a kind of respectfully light touch, privileging  the dignity of the survivors over the audience's comfort or attention span. The moments are not crafted, but given the full stage, save for some supporting projections, to breathe.