Tuesday, March 3, 2015

100 Grad - Sunday ('Catastrophe Sunday')

'The road to hell is paved with good intentions', thought your correspondent, as I wearily arrived at HAU 2 about 90 minutes after planned, panting from a long (8.6km) walk from Pankow to Kreuzberg. After having my original plan to catch the free shuttle service from nearby Ballhaus Ost - the third venue in 100 Grad - foiled by that venue not having any events on Sunday (and therefore no bus) I decided that Sophiensaele was not too far by foot, and kept going. Waiting for half an hour for that bus from Sophiensaele to HAU, my destination, I experienced 'nature calling', and ran inside for 5 minutes, only to find that the bus had chosen those particular five minutes to arrive. Deciding that now both my planned 5pm and 6pm shows were a write-off, I saddled up again, and continued walking to HAU, briefly taking in, by force, the tourist delights of Berlin.

Gotta get that bike fixed for summer...

Hamlet Private

My good fortune finally came when I somehow caught Hamlet Private, a piece of international  microtheatre directed by Helsinki-based, Swiss-born director Martina Marti, and which had just six performances during 100 Grad over a three hour period. The work has been in Berlin before 18 months ago, and has 'toured' internationally through several different performers in different European countries. It's a one-on-one performance, and can be performed anywhere with a table, two chairs, a candle and a deck of specialised playing cards. The performer (a mystical Claudia Schwartz) sits you down and explains to you that Hamlet is 'inside the deck of cards', and then proceeds with a kind of customised tarot reading that incorporates elements of the play.

It's possible to read Hamlet as being a play entirely about Fate. The references to free will and autonomy are littered throughout the text, taking on new resonance these days by the fact that the play is so well-known, and therefore that any audience comes to it knowing, in some sense, their fate. There's a sense of inevitability about Hamlet's death drive, he is in some ways a character waiting to die, intuitively deducing that this is the only way to really resolve his inner crisis of identity and authenticity. Even a surface reading of Hamlet reveals a play obsessed with mortality. 'To be, or not to be' is at once a simple musing on the false choices that constitute an existence under sufferance. After all, if the choice is between different ways to suffer, that is, indeed, no choice at all.

As a psychological explanation for an irrational (but dominant) facet of human behaviour, Hamlet just never gets old. From ISIS to Capitalism to hipsterdom, the human being (at least in the West) is characterised by its contradictory and hypocritical needs for both immortality and death, at once an identity that is undeniable and a kind of self-erasure that entirely opposes that. This one contradiction, and its complex relationship with past, present and future, not to mention autonomy and control, can explain entire swathes of illogical human behaviour. (For example, why humanity is unable to change behaviour in the face of scientifically supported Apocalypse - and yet people will travel thousands of miles to participate in a religious war. Such phenomena are better approached not by asking 'why are people so stupid?' but a much more complex question of 'Why do people want to die?' But that's an aside.)

Tarot Card Reading is, like much of what we know to be theatre, also European, and probably predates Hamlet as a practice (although rules were formalised and documented later than Hamlet's agreed writing date). Interestingly, the practice differs by European region - but it has in common the links to philosophy, the occult and the subconscious.

The strength of the decision to approach Hamlet through Tarot is fairly clear - a one-on-one performance engages a deeper and more personal contemplation of mortality and fate, removing the oddly social experience that normally comes with a viewing of the play, and replacing it with an etiquette or protocol of one actor who is not exactly performing. As well as a nod to Shakespeare's dabbling in the supernatural, it puts the focus on the symbolic nature of the characters and their relationship with collective consciousness. It also allows for a kind of psychological diagnosis - the participant is guided towards a question that remains unanswered for them (mine was ironically about mortality, I think as a result of a subconscious preparation for the play and the long walk to get there) and then a narrative unfolds in which some guidance is given as to how that question will be answered for them.
Some creepy shit gonna come up with this, and it sure as hell did for me. A theatre artists life is naturally spent trapped in deep subjectivity and authenticity problems from which one never quite escapes - these are difficult to phrase except to say that things such as 'who am I?' don't ever seem to quite cut it, as those questions rely on crystallising the idea - and are therefore in some sense false representations. 'Fate' for a theatre artist is always a difficult question not dissimilar to having to perform a play night after night - you have a keen and informed sense of how it will end, but that doesn't stop it being your task to undertake it, and do so with feeling. Shakespeare himself blends art and life in his endless conflation of these things in his characters, "all the world's a stage" (As You Like It), "life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his our upon the stage" (Macbeth), even the Sonnets, which have a more earnest hold on an authentic voice, are replete with a tortured artist's existence of ironic affirmation of life through countless death metaphors. Fate, for Shakespeare, seems to be at once a site of intense contemplation, manifesting in bursts of writing that come exactly at the point where the autonomy of that contemplation is surrendered to the action of writing.

All of which makes for an extremely complex experience in Hamlet Private. I sense my own private performance was probably tainted somewhat by my instincts to protest the removal of autonomy that any spiritual discussion of fate necessitates - after all, daily life contains more than enough 'guidance' of various companies wanting me to buy shit by selling me an 'transformative experience' or some kind of Buddhist capitalist meaning, for my otherwise nihilist and ethically irreconciable consumerist existence and so on. Hamlet Private is quite clearly not this - it engages with an two old European traditions of theatre and Tarot, developing a new form of theatre that (in conversation with contemporary theatre practice) forms a fertile connection between them, in the process giving a complex statement about the development of Western Philosophy and its foundations in European society.

As does Hamlet - but viewing that play has perhaps become a contradictory philosophical experience, defined by an uncrossable distance. After all - you can separate yourself from the character of Hamlet. He's a guy on a stage, going through a tough existential time because of his family drama. You don't always have to take on his baggage.

But... you can't very well separate yourself from yourself. Can you.

Hamlet Private

developed by Gnab Collective
Written and Directed by Martina Marti
Visual design: Marion Maisano
Working Group: Cécile Orblin, Martina Marti, Marion Maisano, Jaana Eskola, Jukka-Pekka Pajunen 
with Claudia Schwartz
Photo: Marion Maisano (pictured: Claudia Schwartz)

Also viewed:

Little Strategies for Instability by Apollo 18 - Effervescent and carefree dancing with shopping bags filled with shredded paper and an alien/Italian washing machine twist. Berlin theatre at its...most. HAU 3

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