Jette Steckel’s new production of this German classic is a buzz, a rush, a gig; Büchner’s script, one of the most astonishing products of 19th century European theatre, is given a more minor role. Until the performance last night (Dec. 29th 2012), all previous performances of Steckel’s production had been accompanied by English surtitles, in an explicit attempt by the Thalia Theater to reach out to an international audience in Hamburg, who would otherwise not go to a German language play of this complexity. Which was one reason I went to see the play in the first place – to experience how well the surtitles worked, and to see what kind of international audience they are attracting. For unknown reasons, Thalia dropped the surtitles from last night’s performance. So if anyone from Thalia is reading this: would you be so kind as to post a few words, as to why the surtitles were withdrawn?
Set in 1794, five years after the outbreak of the French Revolution, the drama develops out of the tension between two of the revolution’s leaders, Maximilien de Robespierre and Georges Danton, the former portrayed as a cold-hearted, dogmatic, puritan, the latter as an empathetic, philosophical, sensualist. Hounded by Robespierre and his close colleague St Just, Danton and three supporters are guillotined in the production’s final scene, corresponding to real events in April 1794. What Büchner chose not to show was that Robespierre was guillotined just three months later in July 1794, together with St Just, and twenty other supporters, as the flame of revolutionary terror, which Robespierre had done so much to feed, turned against him.
Steckel sprints through Büchner’s narrative, with an almost ceaseless live soundtrack provided by a keyboardist and electric guitarist. In one key debate scene, Daniel Lommatzch (Robespierre) goes head to head musically with Jörg Pohl (Danton) on the drums, the two of them sat behind full-scale drum kits facing the audience, and smashing out their drum solos, sounding for all the world like professional drummers. The spoken text is mixed in on top of all that, delivered through actors all wearing millimetre thin wireless microphones taped to their cheeks. You can hear some dialogues better than others, depending on how much sonic space the director has allocated to the musicians bigging it up with electronic wa-wowho-wa noises at that particular point in the action. This is reminiscent of how crowds during the French Revolution experienced speeches they heard; many words of speeches must have been lost to open-air acoustics and the jeers and cheers of the mob. Steckel’s decision to soundscape the production in this way certainly captures the hysteria and indecision of the time: which path to believe in, when five different skilled polemicists are all shouting a different message? And, as it sounds to us, the rabble, they’re all shouting at the same time.
The texts in the print programme for the production mix polemic and philosophy, and invite us to compare attacks on capitalism today, and the attack shaped by the Occupy movement in particular, with the French terror depicted on the stage. If the Thalia seriously wants to attract the English speaking audience in Hamburg who don’t have high-level German skills to this play, then the decision not to include English translations/versions of all three texts is a mistake. It was also a mistake to omit the name of the German language translator of the (originally English language) speech given by Slavoj Žižek to the Occupy movement in New York in October 2011.
These small objections aside, the programme’s engrossing texts make it top-heavy with an intellectual force which the production itself is disinterested in utilising. How convincing are Jörg Pohl-as-Danton’s arguments, which he uses to defend his “vice-filled” (Robespierre’s term) approach to revolutionary life? Should his silent withdrawal — his refusal to lead — be interpreted as strategy, as the same strategy advocated by Žižek for Occupy? : maintain your silence in the power vacuum you’ve created. It’s your strongest weapon, your equivalent of the French terror. Don’t relinquish this weapon by filling the vacuum with hasty, specific, inadequate demands. Is this the game Pohl’s Danton is playing? Very hard to tell, hearing his statements between one guitar riff and the next, overlapping, exhilarating drum solo. Though neither Pohl’s words, nor Lommatzch’s as Danton, nor those of Karin Neuhäuser playing a marvellously nasty St Just, do drown in this swamp of beautiful din. They gasp for breath instead, shouting of their own worth, shouting of the necessity of reading them, alone, muse-fully, in silence. (Danton’s Death first premièred in 1902, 67 years after it was first published in a heavily censored form. Reading the play as opposed to watching it has pedigree.) Then, if like me you have not already done so, go and read several perspectives on the French Revolution, by contemporary historians. Žižek’s words are just one of many signs that a new terror, of a quite different sort than the French variety, is building in the world again.