Friday, July 5, 2013

For the Disconnected Child

What is 'form', anyway?

If you go to the theatre regularly, you might be forgiven for asking - the cornucopia of formal play now renders the idea itself almost defunct. Audiences expect it now, and, if you ask them, are often pleasantly surprised when it doesn't happen. (The argument here being: when offered something which sits within comfortable parameters, it's possible to stop thinking about 'how' it's said, and start thinking about the 'what').

At its best, destabilising form can resist information's enslavement at the hands of expectation. This goes directly to the ontological centre of the question: 'how is meaning communicated?'. Art has long thrived on the gap between on one hand, 'form' as part of an artistic toolkit, and on the other, its relentless deployment in structuring the information which supply the media with a stream of repetitive narratives, governments with means of border definition, and society with codes of etiquette in which it should behave. The word 'form' in an ontological sense, is the shape meaning takes. Its destabilisation can also be an exposure of, and resistence to, the ideology that form transports. The greatest formal experimenters, Godard, Meyerhold, or John Cage for example, use formal play as a weapon brandished against those who would contain meaning, and therefore reality, within the confines of the already understood norms or codes.

Breaking out of these structures is one possible means by which theatre can be a place for resistance. Arguably it breaks through to the fundamental objective of art itself.

Such attacks date quickly - especially now, as forms are fluid and constantly changing. One year your experiences are coming via your X-box, the next via your Blogroll, the next your Twitter feed, you might travel and people travel to you and bring their customs, habits, and etiquettes, and governments slide borders and policies with the prevailing winds. Any serious attempt to tackle the structures of meaning through form must now address the fact that human experience is already in a shape-shifting flux.

For the Disconnected Child, a collaborative project headed by Schaubuehne wunderkind Falk Richter, seems therefore rather, well, disconnected. This is hybrid theatre - centre stage is the interplay of drama, music and contemporary dance, whilst an omnipresent central concept hangs over all of it, never directly stated but continuously hinted at.


What this concept is, it's difficult to say precisely. The protagonist is a middle-aged woman (Ursina Lardi), estranged by her husband and left with two children (mentioned, but never seen) in a large house. She tries to connect with her mother (Borjana Mateewa) - a white-haired opera singer who sings only a single line repetitively "Was man erst kaum ertragen kann / wie schnell gewöhnt man sich daran" ("What you can hardly tolerate before/ how quickly it grows on you") - via a patchy Skype connection, as she trawls internet matchmaking sites looking for a quick fix. Her situation - one of exreme loneliness and disconnection from human contact - is reflected in various sub-pairings performed by other cast members, from two orchestra members, who interrupt the live music with a conversation about why they cannot ever be close despite having already had an affair, to a couple who met on the internet whose relationship is in melt-down, to pairs of dancers who play out choreographed contradictions between physical proximity and emotional disconnection. The theme is also mirrored by the scenes from Tschaikovsky's opera about romantic miscommunication, Eugene Onegin, sung by Berliner Staatsoper's Maraike Schröter and Gyula Orendt.

It almost goes without saying that Richter is pointing towards the impossibility of closeness as a universal in human relationships that is exacerbated by the pressures of the digital age. A well-worn path puncutated by cliches (the estranged woman longing for contact, the distanced chauvinist male incapable of emotional closeness) is abated only by a clearly token "feminist" rejection of the role of mother and wife in a highly forced "reconciliation" with her former child.

The modular stage is complimented by a rather traditional orchestra pit (occupied by the orchestra after a worrying fake-out in the opening, which has them centre stage and interspersed with the actors, also holding instruments). The music, composed by seven of what the Schaubuehne calls "young composers of new music" accompanies much of the stage time, and the more successful dance elements, performed by Franz Rogowski , Steven Michel and Jorijn Vriesendorp, serve to further abstract the plot. The music is original but not, by itself, particularly compelling, though it does contain some exquisite synchronisation with the cast - in particular a scene of intermittent sobbing, perfectly harmonised by a piano accompaniment.

But the success of this set-up hangs on the quality of its concept, and it falls short. The theme of disconnection never fully manifests in its fragmented shards, nor does it particularly shed any light on the human condition.

As a polemic, it simply fails to enlighten anything significant. For a work experimenting with fragmentation and destabilising realities, there is surprisingly little here to upend established orders or structures. What's most disappointing is not that it doesn't work - it's such a broad approach that it never has a chance. I'm not talking about every play incorporating Twitter, smartphones and other media trends. Destabilising form, but ignoring the effect of this, creates only more meaninglessness.

For the Disconnected Child
Text, Direction and Choreography: Falk Richter
Composition by Malte Beckenbach, Achim Bornhoeft, Oliver Sascha Frick, Helgi Hrafn Jónsson, Jan Kopp, Jörg Mainka, Oliver Prechtl
Conductor: Wolfram-Maria Märtig

Schaubuehne Theater

This review contains contributions from Sonja Hornung.

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