BERLIN – “The city stinks of death in its streets,” laments the chorus in Sophocles’s “Oedipus Rex”. Thebes is in the grip of a deadly plague. The king summons a prophet to guess the will of the gods, who accuses the monarch, “You are the damned polluter of this earth.
The theme of nature’s response, revolting against unnatural acts, is a theme that resonates 20 months after the start of the Covid-19 pandemic and after a summer of extreme weather events linked to climate change, including floods in Germany, deadly heat waves in Canada and fires. in Greece.
All of this may help explain why, at the start of the theater season in Berlin, Sophocles’ tragic hero, the original Mama Boy, was at the center of a quartet of new productions at some of the city’s biggest companies. .
Perhaps the most anticipated piece was Maja Zade’s new piece, “ödipus», A contemporary revamp of the myth, which was created in Athens Epidaurus Festival this month and recently transferred to the Schaubühne. Michael, a young employee of a German chemical company, is dating his much older boss, Christina. Their relationship begins to crumble over the handling of a chemical spill investigation, and Michael learns that the accident also caused the death of Christina’s first husband. Several revelations later, Michael puts two and two together and realizes that – spoiler alert – he killed his father and slept with his mother.
Any hint of ancient Greek cosmology is erased from Zade’s version. The most explicit reference to the myth in Thomas Ostermeier’s clean and sterile production is a small statue of a sphinx perched on a kitchen counter. Jan Pappelbaum’s sparse decor, framed in neon lights, has a realism worthy of a sitcom. The dialogue, broadcast by the four people around the kitchen table or a barbecue in the courtyard, is rigid and largely functional. The actors fight more against a poorly made play than against fate.
The only successful one is Caroline Peters as Christina, who, even more than her young lover, is at the center of Zade’s room. Peters shows off her knack for transcending mediocre dramatic material, just as she did in the recent Schaubühne production of Simon Stone’s “Yerma”. At the climax of the production, she explains the terrible truth to Michael. His face is projected as a close-up on a screen (the only time the intermittent video is of any use), allowing us to record every twitch during the long speech. She pulls off the delicate monologue like a doctor preparing to give a patient a terrible diagnosis, putting aside her bedside manners because there is no way to water down such a horrific revelation.
Besides gods and fate, Zade’s play also dispenses with the choir, a pillar of Greek drama, which provides a collective counterpoint to the individuals at the center of the drama. Singing in unison, they also fill in background information and commentary on the action, serving as a sort of link between the main cast and the audience.
This choir, on the other hand, takes center stage in the very ritualistic “” of the Deutsches Theater.Oedipus», A largely faithful production of Sophocles play directed by Ulrich Rasche. The contrast of tone and style with the down-to-earth realism of Ostermeier’s production couldn’t be more striking.
Rasche has devised an extremely precise Maschinentheater mode, a theatrical approach that relies heavily on elaborate scenic elements and staging. His dark, industrial productions derive much of their sweaty vitality from intense physical performance and buzzing music. His “Odipe” is based on a 1804 translation by the German Romantic poet Friedrich Hölderlin, whose language is archaic and strongly lyrical. The cast, walking in place on a constantly rotating stage, utters the text clearly and with studied intensity.
Nico van Wersch’s score includes an electric bass, a Moog synthesizer and a microtonal keyboard. The choir sings in unison, creating a punchy atmosphere that harmonizes with the concentric rings of color-changing fluorescent lights that tilt from the ceiling. The effect is startling for the first hour, then quickly becomes sleepy. Rasche takes his time – just under three hours – and slow-motion production is maddening.
Music played an even bigger role in Berlin’s second pair of Oedipal productions.
British composer Mark-Anthony Turnage was in his twenties in 1988 when he wrote “Greek», Which recently opened the season of Deutsche Oper Berlin. This short two-act opera contains a lot, including a scathing political and social commentary on Thatcher-era England and a conscious dispatch of opera as an art form that originally sought out to resuscitate the spirit of ancient Greek drama. .
A courageous and pot-à-bouche comic book opera, “Greek” brings action from ancient Thebes to East London. Odipe becomes Eddy, an angry working-class young man who seeks self-improvement while fleeing a gruesome fate predicted by a carnival fortune teller who has become a running joke in his family.
In the parking lot of the Deutsche Oper (a spot opposite the crown also used last year for a reduced production of Wagner’s “Das Rheingold”), four singers strutted and strutted in the cartoonish campy production of young German director Pinar Karabulut , wearing colorful variations on ancient Greek clothing, right down to orange, purple, and green curly wigs and beards. There’s a fair amount of spoken text, which the all-American cast members sent in with exaggerated Cockney accents when they weren’t singing the eclectic score, which ranges from ballroom rudeness poignant lyricism.
Turnage’s irreverent work is one of the most recent musical versions of the myth of Odipe, a list that includes Stravinsky’s “Oedipus Rex” from 1927 and The Doors’ “The End”. Among the most powerful is George Enescu’s 1936 opera, “Oedipus,” an underperformed 20th century masterpiece that recently opened the season of Berlin’s Komische Oper. (By a rare coincidence, a new opera production also kicked off the season at the Paris Opera.)
Kazakh director Evgeny Titov’s surreal production is by far the most brutal of Berlin’s Oedipal offerings. The set resembles an abandoned madhouse and is often drenched in blood, from the tragic hero’s difficult birth to his transfiguring death in Colonus. Between the two are graphic representations of the disemboweling of Laius and Odipus hollowing out his eyes.
Enescu’s musical language merges various styles of early modernism with traditional Romanian melodies and harmonies, which the Komische Oper orchestra, under the baton of its general musical director, Ainars Rubikis, performs with confidence and intensity. The long title role features ample Sprechgesang, a vocal style halfway between song and speech. British baritone Leigh Melrose’s dazzling performance is as much a dramatic achievement as it is musical achievement. Of all the Odipes that haunt the German capital, his is the most touching, tragic and believable.
Enescu began writing “Oedipus” shortly after Sigmund Freud first theorized the Odipus complex, and the composer’s Odipus is an archetype of modern man who, despite his quest for knowledge and understanding. self-understanding, is blind to itself, unable to outrun fate and agent. of its own destruction.
Is it any wonder that some of today’s greatest theater directors have turned to this 2,500-year-old existential detective story as we grapple with disasters affecting our bodies and our planet? Like the elders, we get the myths we deserve, not the myths we want.
ödipus. Directed by Thomas Ostermeier. Schaubühne Berlin, until September 26.
dipe. Directed by Evgeny Titov. Komische Oper Berlin, until September 26.
Oedipus. Directed by Ulrich Rasche. Deutsches Theater Berlin, until October 17.