After Natten


By Georg Döcker

Mårten Spångberg’s new production had been eagerly awaited. Over the last couple of years, Spångberg had become one of the most influential makers in the field of performing arts worldwide, his work and discourse especially speaking to the generation of current students, the twenty-somethings of the post-internet era. For many of this generation, Spångberg seems to have become something like a guru who like almost no other intuitively grasps and transforms into words and performances the core of the contemporary condition, lifestyle and tune of the soul, always giving it a little twist that attributes to his undertaking a critical agency – critical nonetheless, even or especially if it takes on the form of hyper affirmation of consumer capitalism like in La Substance, but in English from 2014. Contemporaneity, that is consumer capitalism, that is post-internet subjectivity with the perfume of post-irony, but also zombies and horror stories, the latter fuelling his 2016 production Natten which premiered at Kunstenfestivaldesarts in Brussels, followed by Natten, The Series this year.


At the same place in May 2017, Spångberg introduced his audience to Gerhard Richter, une pièce pour le théâtre, and prior to everything else it is the title that suggests that something might have changed in his work. For a start, Gerhard Richter as well as theatre seem to be anything but valuable trademarks in the currency of radical chic hipster contemporaneity. Quite on the contrary, both in their own way have something of a conservative or corrupted smell. Richter is generally being associated with the hall of fame of old western masters of 20th century visual arts and also with some of the most dislikable features of the visual arts world, his paintings namely selling like gold bars at auctions. And of course, there is formalism, especially in Richter’s later work.


This formalism might be the most obvious trait that we can assume having led to Spångberg engaging with his œuvre, after all Spångberg’s very own choreographies of movement gain much of their importance from a political twist of formalism, that is formalism as the indeterminability of the body and subject which moves. This indeterminability of pure form is also present in Gerhard Richter, une pièce pour le théâtre, but it has a different colour and purpose. It is not directed at the political issue of living in consumer capitalism like in La Substance, but it rather points towards an existentially heavy aspect of “Dasein”, and that is due to the notion and practice that is being pointed to in the second part of the title of his new production: the notion and practice of theatre. Theatre, what an old name, anything but contemporary. You wanna use contemporary terminology? – You better talk about performance, but you don’t say theatre. So why theatre? And why Gerhard Richter? And why Gerhard Richter in conjunction with theatre? And where is Spångberg taking us with these notions and perspectives that seem so different from his previous work?


The performers seem to address a space between stage and auditorium


If Gerhard Richter, une pièce pour le théâtre is a theatre production, then this is first of all and most obviously due to the fact that his ten performers do not only move, but also speak. One after the other, they slowly walk on stage, sitting down mostly in pairs on the laid-out cow leather floor, and then, facing the audience, they start to speak to us. There we have another feature historically aligned with theatre: the frontal address of the audience. But in this case, we are too quick to judge if that is all we see: yes, the performers face the audience and speak their words in their direction, but do they really speak to them? Much rather than fully affirming the rhetoric of theatre, Spångberg invents a new way of speaking on stage: the performers speak not in an expressive way, not so that the voices fill the entire stage and auditorium, they do not use the technique of an actor who is trained to fill the room with his or her words no matter whether they are supposed to be an urgent expression of his character or of a more formal index.


Instead, the performers speak quietly, turning the entire space into a room so quiet that you could hear a pin drop. They are audible, but they speak much lower than average volume, and more importantly, they speak not to the audience, but rather only to the space of the auditorium or more precisely, they seem to address a space in between stage and auditorium, an inexistent third space or a space pointing towards something that is not present. Of course, the audience is physically present, and it is also given crucial importance, otherwise the auditorium would not stay slightly lit throughout the entire three hours of the performance. Making the audience visible puts them in a closer relationship with the performers and makes performers and audience be more like one community, but nevertheless the words of the performers do not seem to speak to them, but rather to an absent invisible space between them. A community of people whose direction is directed to some absent third via speech and text.


But what text? Texts from well-known and contemporary Hollywood movies, texts about suffering, sorrow, ageing and death, among them passages from the 2016 movie “Collateral Beauty” with Will Smith. The texts are of a generally sentimental quality, but spoken in a neutral or rather wan or pastel kind of way. There is a sadness or melancholy in the nuances of their “parole”, but at the same time also a distinct clearness or disillusion, even force that resides in the general calmness. These calm and clear words talk especially about death, but they do more than that. As they are being sent out to that absent third space, it becomes more and more clear that this space is actually none other than what we might call the space of death. The performers, in this sense, do not only talk about death, they talk towards death. Not to death in person, because death is not considered to be someone that you can talk to, but the words still seem to be directed to it, directed to it in its absence. It is an address of the unaddressable that knows about the impossibility of its own work, and therefore it is at the same time not an address of the unaddressable, but just a putting words out into the space and among those who really are present, the audience. The audience witnesses performers engage in this action and it also watches the performers do this for them. The performers speak into the void or the open precisely for the audience.


What is changing in the transition from cult to theatre?


In the program sheet to Gerhard Richter, une pièce pour le théâtre, Spångberg reveals to us that Werner Hamacher served as a prime inspiration for the work on the production. This mention is rather surprising since Hamacher, maybe the most important German representative of deconstructivism, wasn’t mentioned in Spångberg's texts before. Much rather, Spångberg so far identified with the thought of Deleuze & Guattari which is sensu stricto incompatible with deconstruction. How come that Spångberg so strongly redirected his philosophical compass? Instead of speculating about possible reasons, I want to deepen this reading by bringing into play another prominent voice of deconstruction, or, as Derrida had it, post-deconstruction, namely Jean-Luc Nancy. Can he, the French philosopher, tell us more about the “pièce pour le théâtre”?


Nancy's interest in theatre is well known and especially debated in the German-speaking region, a circumstance that might have to do with the fact that several of Nancy's texts on theatre have been translated into German and some of them exclusively published in German such as Theater als Kunst des Bezugs 1 und 2. These two texts from 2014, which are based on a conversation with the philosopher Marita Tatari and a lecture in Bochum, and which had both been transcribed and edited by Tatari, tell us a lot about Nancy's understanding of theatre as derived from a key phrase of Brecht which Nancy also quoted at the beginning of his earlier text Theatereignis. Brecht, as Nancy paraphrases him, once said: “Wenn man sagt, daß die Tragödie ausgehend vom Kult entstand, dann vergißt man zu sagen, daß sie zur Tragödie wurde, indem sie von ihm ausging”, a German phrase with a double meaning that Nancy plays on: in ancient Greek, the theatre derives from the cult, the ritual, but in deriving from it it also departs from it, it disassociates from it in order to become something other than a cult, that is theatre.


What is it exactly that changes in the transition from cult to theatre? The cult used to be an act performed for the gods in order to worship them and guarantee that they be well-meaning to the people, to the polis, to the humans, to man. At a certain point though, the gods, due to an inexplicable reason, retreated from the humans, they became absent, or inversely, humans decided to retreat from communication with the gods. At precisely this moment or through precisely this dynamics, Nancy suggests, theatre is being born. In theatre, people no longer direct their words and acts to the gods, but to themselves, from now on people act in front of people, not for the gods.


The impossible address of death


In a possible reading, we might go so far as to say that it is through the invention of theatre that the humans retreated from the gods instead of theatre only being a reaction to the retreat of the gods from the humans. How do the humans communicate to the humans? Primarily via language, via speech. Actors talk in front of and to listeners, the audience. This is how and when the actors at the same time present to the audience and create in the communication with them an intensification of the “rapport”, the “Bezug” or the connection as such which is, according to Nancy, the ontological necessity of all being in the sense of “Mitsein”, a post-Heideggerian “Mitsein”: we only exist in connection to others, in reference to others, and theatre, via the presentation of the means of speech, gives us an intensified account of this ontological principle. However, Nancy adds, comprised in the experience of the existential connectedness of human “Dasein” is also the experience of that which exceeds any reference, the absence of any connection: death.


Having arrived at this point, we might be able to see one of the deeper reasons that are at play in Spångberg’s naming of his new production: it is a “pièce pour le théâtre” in the sense that it revives the theatre as a space for the communication of the community including the impossible communication with the other of the community and life which is death. And this communication, especially the impossible address of death, essentially depends on theatrical speech, meaning that death can only be raised as an issue via the means of language or, in a wider sense, symbolic actions, because it is precisely the symbolic function that allows pointing towards something absent or absence as such.


However, Gerhard Richter is also a piece for the theatre in that it perceives the theatre as a place which does not ultimately surrender to death. At this point, it should be mentioned that Gerhard Richter, une pièce pour le théâtre has a dramaturgy of two acts. The first act or the first one and a half hours might be a tribute to death, but the second act or second half of the performance is a celebration of life—via dance. Against the backdrop of death and through the impossible relation to it, the performers’ dances that were already present in the first half, but then also presented in pale or pastel tones, become continuously stronger and more radiant in the second half.


Finally, is this production a Brechtian piece?


The dance phrases containing mixed references to ballet, modern dance, release technique, but also video clip movements seem to come together as a melange of joyful material. We see performers in their joy of dance and movement, in an almost sentimental or romantic display of human pleasure in the light of mortality. Yet, the formality, the quasi-Richterian formality of the movement material, but also the formality of the language material of the text forbid any psychological reading in terms of emotions. On a deeper level—and this might be the most important connection between Richterian formalism and theatre in this production—the formalism itself is, in a sense, nothing other than the indeterminable line or border that on its two sides knows death and life and is in contact with both without ever becoming one of them. It is from the formalism that the performers indeterminably move in between death and life, in the first half rather leaning to the former, in the second half rather leaning to the latter.


Now, is all this contemporary? No. Is it untimely in the best sense of the word? Maybe. Finally, is this production deconstructivist? We can say that the deconstructivist view on theatre has always been very close to Brecht, as Nancy exemplifies, so maybe what we could say is that Gerhard Richter, une pièce pour le théâtre might be to some extent a Brechtian piece. Didn't Spångberg once, only in passing after a public talk in Gießen in January this year, say that the previous production Natten was very much influenced by Artaud (the Artaud probably of Le théâtre et son double, but rather not the late Artaud, we might add)? So first Artaud, then Brecht? First Natten as a production that can also be seen as an attempt in a cult or ritual like performance and then Gerhard Richter as a theatre performance? From cult to theatre? From Artaud to Brecht? This would certainly be too much of a schematic genealogy. But something’s changing in Spångberg’s work. Or to put it in his terminology and play with it a little: not something, but some thing is changing.