Features » Performing Arts

Since being diagnosed with lung cancer at the beginning of last year, Christoph Schlingensief has made his illness the subject of a number of stage productions. At the Ruhrtriennial in Duisburg he created a grand-scale fluxus burial mass for the "future deceased". Then in Berlin's Maxim Gorki Theater in November, he staged a small sketch, "The Situation Now", in which he reported that the diagnosis for his remaining lobe looked "shit". And now, after a successful second bout of therapy, he is continuing the hospital drama in Vienna's Burgtheater.


We meet in loneliness

Peter Michalzik was moved and elated by Christoph Schlingensief's readymade opera, "Mea Culpa".

Today, Joachim Meyerhoff is Christoph Schlingensief. Meyerhoff is wearing a dark green velvet suit and wants to convince us of his idea of building an opera house in Africa: no more cultural exchange; instead, cultural fusion. Schlingensief seriously means what Meyerhoff says. The African opera house is his dream.

The third and final act of the current production, "Ein Blick ins Jenseits" (a look into the beyond) takes place in this African opera house. There, Schlingensief-Meyerhoff dreams of Andreas, a school friend who took his own life and is now waiting in the Great Beyond for his former love. Then he dreams of his dead father, telling him that he loved him so much, but that it's good that he's gone. My poor son, says the father. He yells back: I'm not poor - I've still got plenty to do here yet.

"Mea Culpa" is Schlingensief's huge, heart-rending production at the Vienna Burgtheater; he calls it a "readymade opera" - certainly an apt description for this stage juggernaut with its cargo of quotations, images, musical genres, thoughts and emotions. But above all else, it's a new kind of psychodrama. A performance that whirls round Schlingensief, his soul, and his cancer like a maelstrom - a maelstrom created by a black hole that no one knows, not even the Master towards whom Schlingensief is pulling us. It is dark and distant here, but also true and vast; it is Death.

Schlingensief lays bare his innermost self and it hovers like a passion fruit in the middle of the dark stage, dripping with the scarlet juice of bitter experience, ripened by the dark sun of tribulation. Either we suffer alongside him this evening, or we experience nothing. Schlingensief doesn't make it difficult for us. Because nothing the world has constructed around cancer and the experience of death, nothing it does to deal with and repress the mysterious illness and death, is spared Schlingensief's mockery, himself and his production included. He relieves us of this burden and takes us with him into the dark void.

It begins with the "Parsifal" he staged at Bayreuth six years ago and which he truly thought could save both himself and the world. In this failure, he finds the root of his illness. As soon as someone shouts "the wound, the wound" and Amfortas positions himself on top of Kundry with clear intent - and this happens early on – all our suspicions are confirmed: Schlingensief is now laughing about himself as freely as he does about the holy Wagner. With a sigh of relief the performance goes on to lampoon an Ayurveda clinic where all the club members bow down to tin idols to the sound of cash flow. Then, licking his lips, Schlingensief sinks his teeth into the self-satisfied art world and its conformist dissidence, before exposing the impertinent ignorance of traditional medics. And he casually makes fun of agitated theatre directors. How good it all feels.

Directorially, Schlingensief uses the densely packed revolving stage from "Parsifal" and his "Animatographs" to accommodate all this and more; a cancer cell stands on the stage, and the pulmonary lobe from which it came hangs glowingly in the background. As in Bayreuth, lighting designer Voxi Bärenklau imposes a filmic flickering upon the dark scenery, greyish visual static crackles over images of people and animals; we see leeches and bats - a flickering that consolidates the abundance into a unity. Composer Arno Waschk, Richard Wagner, and numerous musicians immure it all in a vibrating edifice of sound that repeatedly seizes you by the throat and effortlessly contains Schlingensief's leaps of thought. There's no denying that the Schlingensief team displays a mastery in its creation of a serenely flowing stream for its gushing abundance of ideas.

Equally polymorphic is the large community of people that gathers on stage. The dwarves, old timers and invalids, so loved by Schlingensief, stand and speak beside six singers, an orchestra and a chorus. Fritzi Haberlandt, Irm Hermann, ironist Margit Carstensen and Joachim Meyerhoff mingle with four chic, young blacks who start off as nurses and end up as models in the African opera house.

"Mea Culpa" is a mature work, elegiac, parodic, exhibitionistic. But the mood is buoyant. And Schlingensief comes onto the stage - in the flesh and not as Meyerhoff - as his own caveat. Yes, he says, I want to make myself public. Even if it's presumptuous. Yes, he says, you should all make yourselves public. Yes, in the darkness, there, where we're all alone, we'll meet there. And so Schlingensief moves through life with a new love - what beautiful news. And he moves us. And gives us the courage to come to a difficult realisation: Help yourself, no one else will.

Incidentally: It was not part of the production for the editor of the Austrian newspaper Die Presse to sit in the sixth row and illuminate the darkness with his laptop - it was just bad form.


The article originally appeared in the Frankfurter Rundschau on 23 March 2009.

Peter Michalzik is the theatre critic for the Frankfurter Rundschau.

Translation: Daniel Mufson - let's talk european