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Bungling the Bacchae

Peter Michalzik reviews Jossi Wieler's blood-filled, orgiastic staging of Euripides' "The Bacchae".

In Euripides, Dionysus is simply there. He returns from Asia to Thebes, the city of his birth, where it had once been disputed that he was the son of a god and therefore a god himself. Now he takes his revenge, and drives the city's women, spellbound by his beauty, into the mountains where they worship him as their new god. Dionysus, more a god of revenge and wrath than of wine and theatre, takes the game a long way, so far that the women, led by Agave, the mother of King Pentheus, slash her son to bits. The play signals a horrifying return of the repressed, of the dawn of history, of the East. One can read many returns into this play.

Die Bakchen: Sylvana Krappatsch and Wiebke Puls © Arno Declair

Dionysus, also the Dionysus of Euripedes' "The Bacchae", was never really banned from German theatres. Nonetheless he's experiencing something of a return here. In Basel, a modernised version of the play, originally staged in Stuttgart, is running under the title "Virus". In Frankfurt, Josef Ostendorf is playing Dionysus, while two major performances are now playing in Munich. Dieter Dorn has dulled down the play at the Residenztheater, as people are saying, and the Kammerspiel just had its premiere of Dionysus experiment number two under the direction of Jossi Wieler.

Each of these attempts uses its own translation. Kurt Steinmann, who had previously translated Alkestis for Jossi Wieler, crafted the version at the Kammerspiel into a cautiously casual, easily-spoken German, providing the appropriate basis for Wieler to force the play into the realm of late bourgeois family relations, as he did with Alkestis. It takes a while before the god enters the clean stage. At first, Teiresias the prophet and Cadmus, Pentheus' grandfather, also decide to follow the god into the wonderful mistiness of daybreak, to join the Bacchanals. But then comes the nicely ironic, distanced and subservient statement: "He doesn't like group cults." The tone struck by Hans Kremer and Peter Brombacher reflects the prevailing atmosphere of the society into which the archaic Dionysus storms: late bourgeois, staid, sarcastic, mildly ironic.

Sylvana Krappatsch, Robert Hunger-Bühler, Wiebke Puls © Arno Declair

Before Dionysus there's Pentheus, a buttoned-up success story, wearing a slightly Asiatic, black designer suit. He's a model of self-realisation from the end of time, one who needs an institutional home with the atmosphere of an operating room, a well-lit living space, in order to remain competent in the thin air of his life. Andre Jung's performance is the highlight of the play, a man whose surgical corset has become his second skin, and who has several identical suits hanging in his closet because coincidence and happenstance are foreign to him.

He is escorted by a servant (Jochen Noch), a menial version of himself. Jung shows through his posture, his look and his language the loss but also the greatness of this lonely man, the autonomous subject. It's clear that the sleep of this selectively bred reason can produce monsters. Nevertheless, the monster born of the dream is the problem of this staging. What Wiebke Puls and Sylvana Krappatsch as god-escorting Bacchae and Robert Hunger-Bühler as their escort represent is not the incursion of the irrational, the archaic, the other - and definitely not of the monstrous. It's more a Dieter Bohlen dream of the wild life. Little apricot suede costumes with snakeskin boots as a sugar-coated version of the wicked, the rock star in the long snakeskin coat as a tacky version of macho. The god has only gently to tug the women's suede suits and they go down on him, yielding; news of the violence in the mountains has only just reached them and the players are already giving their boss a blowjob.

Peter Brombacher, Hildegard Schmahl © Arno Declair

Later, for the final triumph of the scornful god, when Agave tears into her son's flesh, the highly aroused Bacchae masturbate as they listen to the blood-smeared messenger, and the seduction reaches a climax. Violence is hot. What's makes it annoying is not that it resembles a twisted version of some cheap ad campaign or that's it's sexally discriminating, but because it's so unoriginal. These are the ghosts of an ageing magician's apprentice, who has watched too many late-night hip hop videos, and the price paid in the theatre is no less than five years of limited sexual fantasies.

Over the Dionysian goings on is written "Where there's an ego, there has to be an id", while what is shown on stage is mainly cliches. This distance from the Dionysian element, which can only emerge here through Pentheus' deficits, affects the entire staging, which itself has something very Pentheusish about it. Jossi Wieler specialises in filigree stagings, he may be one of the most select directors, one of the finest spirits in theatre. In his successful stagings he may succeed in giving the elementary levels of text transparent space, Vermeer-like images, and culturally-conscious language. But the weirdness, the horror in the mountains is at best half-believable, and only because the report is accompanied by music which, like a film soundtrack, suggests: now it's going to get exciting, here comes the test.

Hildegard Schmahl, Hans Kremer, Peter Brombacher © Arno Declair

And so Jossi Wieler is the last director of the year to fail with "The Bacchae". Is there a way back, is there a way of contacting the origins of our culture? Is Dionysus nowhere to be found? There are the occasional nice moments. Hildegard Schmahl is a deeply shaken Agave when she climbs naked into her son's bathtub, gradually realising what she has done to her own flesh and blood. At times there is something (Heinrich von) Kleist-like about the performance, as though everything has been a mistake in both senses of the word. Here, Wieler is at his best: the antiquity of Dionysus and Penthesilia is a flickering, unbelievable irritation of the late modern, the slip of the tongue of a culture that's overwhelmed, trying too hard and uncertain of itself.

Click here for performance dates of "The Bacchae" at the Kammerspiele in Munich.


The article originally appeared in German in the Frankfurter Rundschau on November 21, 2005.

Peter Michalzik is theatre critic at the Frankfurter Rundschau.

Translation: nb. - let's talk european