Katie Mitchell's Die Ringe des Saturn
Katie Mitchell’s Die Ringe des Saturn, Cologne, Halle Kalk, Friday 11 May 2012
I am back from the world premiere, which happened in the middle of nowhere last Friday night, in a restored industrial building in a district of Cologne. A sold-out performance. Now, what did I see?
I clearly remember the red carpet at the entrance which I hardly dare to step on, the glass of white wine I buy from the bar, the two elderly people at my table („I’m totally unprepared,“ one of them says at one point during their conversation), then the crowd I try to fit in at the entrance to the auditorium. After being let in ten minutes before the play starts, I choose a seat in the first row, where I can study the set from up close. I am vaguely reminded of a giant contemporary art installation where you are allowed to walk through, like one by Jason Rhoades, say, or Thomas Hirschhorn, only sleeker. Then suddenly I know what it really reminds me of: a flat concert stage, with a few industrial shelves along the wall to the far left, a few desks ligned up, also on the left, only nearer, fitted with lamps, microphones and props such as bottles, cups etc. Close to the wall behind I later notice something vaguely drum-settish, and all along, the wall itself bears traces of use, not very clean but as if somebody had tried to scrub it clean without succeeding. On the right, next to where I sit, another set of desks, heaped with computers, musical instruments (a sparse, somehow otherwordly piano will be very important later; at one point a harmonica, too) and more tools, with one of the sound artists, who is also a composer, already being in position. In the middle, a low square-shaped box filled with something that reminds me of the sandboxes kids like to play in. Some metres behind, a comfortable-looking armchair in light-brown leather, a contraption like a miniature door, and a standard lamp. The floor is strewn with dry leaves, which picks up on the autumn-like atmosphere created by low lighting and shades of brown, beige, grey and yellow.
Then the performance starts.
Two men and three women enter from left, and the way they do it makes me feel as if I should clap because I still feel as if a band is coming on. What starts now is the illusion of a book reading by three of the actors, two of them women: script in hand, lips close to the micros, all of it regularly broken by many other things they have to do. Everybody is very busy throughout the play, and they are great multitaskers, with all three of them being responsible for the reading plus creating the sound effects. One of the women, kitted out like a backpacker, is the prototype of the Sebaldian walker figure. So reading and walking (or the pretense of doing the latter, since she doesn’t actually get anywhere) are set up as the two parallel activities that mirror the walking and meditating in the book. All of it is underlined by wonderful black and white video, some of it Tacita-Dean-like, much of it vintage-like, some of it live, i.e. the scenes projected from a light blue and green-ish hospital room which gives the impression of another picture, only this one in colour, but which will be opened and closed to the auditorium quite a few times (a few times too many, to my taste), and it starts with a huge close-up of an elderly male’s face, who is the patient in that room, who is effectively not Sebald but the „I“ of the book, the freely-associating narrator who is admitted to hospital for suffering a nervous breakdown and who shares so many traits with the author.
I’m rather fascinated by the woman’s walking.
There is no break. The play ends after exactly two hours, with the hospital room empty for the first time. Just a white curtain, waving, but no beds, no patient, no live cameras anymore.
Polite applause. The actor who has played the elderly male patient is called on stage by his colleagues, then Katie Mitchell herself, and more of her staff. She looks very serious all the while the applause lasts. Not happy. And then it’s over.
So many great ideas: I liked it when – pronounced by an English speaker – „Mr See bald“ is called via the intercom; actually I liked all the sound effects, the train, the station, the sea, the lake, the rain, the foley artist doing the walking all through the play, the imitation of hard and breathless breathing. I liked the fact that you could actually see how the effects were being created, some of them appearing like a glance into a dubbing process. I liked the great video work, in Sebaldian grainy black and white, and some of it like stills, ever so slightly moving.
All this stylization, all this multimedia showiness, all this contemporary art look (all of which the director seems to favour generally and not just in this production): the effect being, for me, like that of a huge magnifying glass placed on top of Sebald’s book. And this is where I can’t agree with the concept: too much seemed like an illustration of the text to me, whereas in the book (I know I shouldn’t compare but I can’t help it) the point is exactly the opposite, that the visual „ingredients“ are meant to be – and are – either confusing the reader or acting like another kind of quotes, like visual pieces of text, as a matter of fact, which may give the story a new, unexpected turn. I didn’t feel continuously pushed forward either, not as much as I am when reading the book – any book by Sebald. It didn’t make me feel as breathless. It didn’t make me feel as involved. The emotion was lacking somehow (surprisingly, considering how many operas Mitchell has directed, and for me, opera is this great contradiction in terms: the birth of intense emotion through extreme stylization). The longer the play went on, so much more of the same it seemed to be.
I’m not really sure why I’m so sceptical. I had been looking forward to this night for at least half a year. One reason may be, though, that I have had my own visualization of the book in my head for an even longer time.
And yet: I’m glad I was there.