Stage

Who cares what Faust looks like

by Natsume Date

Special To The Japan Times

German contemporary theater has only begun to be introduced in Japan this century, before when the term “Western theater” was generally associated with works by British or American directors that told a story and diligently portrayed the psychological state of the characters.

In comparison, it was shocking to encounter the post-dramatic German style of broadly deconstructed and abbreviated works not dependent on words, but on actual acting and directing that emphasized the visuals.

Although this style is somewhat akin to the shōgekijo (small-scale theater) movement in Japan in the 1960s, it’s its clever objectivity and the mature acting it demands that have awakened many Japanese theatergoers to its appeal.

Put more simply by Nicolas Stemann, one of the world’s most outstanding directors who came to Japan for the first time in April with his radical but highly rated “Faust I”: “German theater is totally different from anything else. British and American theater is faithful to the story, and it’s entertaining, but German theater isn’t entertainment — it’s a political art, and there is a tendency to avoid putting emphasis on telling a story.”

Acclaimed for his work in genres as diverse as his 2009 production of Friedrich Schiller’s classic first play, 1791’s “Die Rauber (The Robbers),” and documentary-style new works such as 2014’s “Die Schutzbefohlenen” (“The Asylum Seekers”) by Austrian Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek, Stemann, 46, went on to tell this writer: “In Britain, and recently around Avignon and Paris, people have begun to watch German theater, and apparently they are very shocked. I have heard stories of conventional playwrights in Britain who have seen how their own works are being twisted in astounding ways by German directors, and while this has surprised them, they are impressed by the power.”

In that production of “Faust I” in April at the World Theatre Festival Shizuoka under Mount Fuji 2014, on the gapingly bare stage created by this aggressive dramatist, a hesitant youth appeared, mumbling as though talking to himself, but reading from the “Dedication” — a foreward to Goethe’s epic tragedy, “Faust.”

The play’s main characters are this youth and two others, a man and a woman. But they are not necessarily playing the roles of Faust, Mephistopheles and Gretchen respectively; rather they take turns reading the text as a monologue as a performance unfolds that has a sense of distance in how it relates only fragmentarily — or perhaps essentially — to the story.

Meanwhile, there were surtitles in Japanese, although they merely informed the audience where the play was up to — such as: Act 1 “Dedication.” It was as if their only point was to say, in effect: “Our performance is strictly following the original script.” Despite that, it was difficult to sense that it put any store on materializing the story — though it didn’t deconstruct the play either. In fact, it slowly emerged that the structure of Goethe’s “Faust” was being shown objectively in a bird’s-eye view.

Upon reflection, it was also apparent that the very possibilities of theater — no less — were being broadened here by this singular director who is clearly several steps ahead of the rest.

“I don’t care at all what kind of expression Faust had on his face when he was worrying in his study. What’s important is how we, as contemporary people, live our lives,” Stemann declared of his work that premiered at Hamburg’s Thalia Theatre in 2011.

“Hence we use the classical text of ‘Faust’ and line it up with the reality in which we all live — and see if we can coexist together with it. That’s what I’m interested in. I think investigation in this direction is a new field even in Germany.”

Stemann’s version of “Faust” also has a five-hour second part, and it’s only to be hoped that, someday, the combined eight-hour, 45-minute work (with breaks) will be staged here in Japan — as it will be for those lucky enough to be in the Thalia Theatre on Nov. 8.

This story was written in Japanese and translated by Claire Tanaka.

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