Only God Forgives


After a rather hectic week and day last Friday I went to see Only God Forgives in Central cinema. The movie is rather excellent if you like extreme violence or Ryan Gosling or both.

The stylized violence and disjunct story telling reminded me remotely of This Is How You Will Disappear. Probably not because any real visual similarity but because I am anxious for somebody in theater to produce something that good and ballsy again. And as this Guardian critic says, the Asian setting and lighting are reminiscent of Noé’s Enter the Void which I would recommend if you can stomach it.

But the violence and the characters in essence are Shakespearian and ‘Only God Forgives’ is how you actually should do a modern day Shakespeare adaptation. The movie is a post-modern mix of Macbeth and King Lear without a hint of slavish following. I lost count of how many bloodless—in all meanings of the word— Shakespeares I have seen on the stage. With this movie Winding Refn has also just schooled all theatre directors.

War and Peace under the shadow of the Apparat

I’ve learned my lessons: I will not go to traditional German theater anymore and I will never again book a play without first checking its duration.

Yesterday night I went to the Volksbühne to see Krieg und Frieden, five hours of 19th century Russian war drama, by the Centraltheater Leipzig as part of the Theatertreffen. I had been listening to its soundtrack by Apparat for the past months. It used to be freely available on Soundcloud and is out now on Spotify.

The excellent music and the fact that the intendant of Leipzig, Sebastian Hartmann, had made some interesting statements about the state of German theater heightened my anticipation for this play.

Turns out I wasn’t the only one drawn in by the presence of a world renowned electronic musician. The  room was noticeably younger than for instance the Haus der Berliner Festspiele the day before but unfortunately it didn’t stay that way. As soon as people around me figured out that this wasn’t going to be an Apparat concert, that in fact the bits of music were going to be interrupted by long and boring German theater, many of them left.

The music was good. So good in fact that the play suffered by comparison.

What was wrong with the play? I would give it an A for effort because that had gone into it. But still all of that effort could not improve the poor writing and dramaturgy. We got subjected to literal hours of exposition. Actors enter, they declaim happenings in the 19th century, they expect this to have an affective effect on us and then they leave. Repeat. Sometimes they do this in chorus form which makes it even worse.

The absence of gripping monologues or almost any sharp dialogue did not help the energy level of the play. I felt like I was being beat into drowsiness that was occasionally relieved by the music.

Qualitatively there were lots of good things in this bad play. The acting when it was allowed was actually really good. There were a couple of scenes that managed to be evocative and memorable. The tilting platform was used brilliantly and added interesting dynamic variations to the scenes. It looks like there are two hours of very solid theater hidden away in these five. If only the director’s creativity had been restrained a bit and his darlings been massacred by somebody.

After the main play, a third part was tacked on which should have been scrapped. The actors go into a meta-treatment and engage in extensive amateur-philosophizing. This was the part where I got my much needed bit of sleep (the room was a third empty by then). The electronic lighting and animation at the very end were added in a way that didn’t match anything in the piece. One wonders at the deliberation that went into that if any.

German theater need not be stuck in the past as proven by Ostermeier. Russian classics need not be enacted in a boring fashion as proven by van Hove. That makes the creation of this mix with its good music, quality acting, terrible indulgence and dramaturgical chaos a choice. A choice that should have been made differently.

V. in Ballhaus Ost

I swore to myself never to go to the theater again which took a lot of the pressure off. But yesterday I did go to see V. in Ballhaus Ost. The posters hanging around town piqued my interest that a group in Berlin would stage a text by Thomas Pynchon. And if anyone should break my rules, it should be me.

German reinterpretations of English works are often problematic because of the language and culture ravine that lies between. That’s no different here. I often had the feeling that the people treating it or doing it don’t really understand the text and they’re just doing something. Just reading a text by Pynchon is no mean feat, let alone creating an adaptation to the stage.

The dramatic performances are more convincing than what I’ve seen in the larger venues here in Berlin. There is also a camera that shows us parts of the stage that are occluded. The bar and party area, the living room quarters with the Killroy curtain hanging in front of it. A refreshing addition especially because videography is anathema in traditional German theater.

The piece takes its time. Probably stemming from the misconception that things that have a long duration are profound. This can be true, but three hours is just in between a bearable evening play and the dramatic marathon that imbibes special meaning to the ordeal. It is amazing however that such theatric effort can be bought for €13, a steal whichever way you look at it.

After the first hour of trying to follow what was happening in various parts of the stage I had the realization that made everything fall into place. Instead of trying to follow the story I just thought back to The Invisibles, the legendary psychedelic graphic novel of disparate threads bound together by a crazed vision. After that I could just let the subsequent hours wash over me. Which raises the question: has there been an The Invisibles play yet? King Mob on the stage would kick Molière’s ass.

If you want to see over three hours of risky disjunctive theater, you should definitely go.