Endstation Sehnsucht

Just when I say I won’t write about my experiences of theatre productions I have seen I put up a post about one such. The difference is that I saw this in Zürich, so the problematic issues don’t apply.

I have one friend in Switzerland with whom I regularly go to the theatre. Usually we meet once a year in London, most recently we have been joined by his girl friend, another good friend of mine, but a few times now we went to the theatre over our Christmas breaks as well.

This year I wanted to see a production by Christoph Marthaler, not because the topic sounded very interesting, but because I had heard a lot about him and his work. So, I wanted to experience it. Unfortunately, by the time we had agreed on a date there were no more tickets left and in order not to loose the reserved time slot for a theatre visit I booked us the next best show that was on that night: a production in German of Tenessee Williams’ Endstation Sehnsucht. Never heard of it? Neither had I. I tried to figure out which one it might be by translating it in my head: Final destination lust… Did not sound very familiar. I have to admit that I did not remember much about that playwright from classes. I had a vague idea he might have written either a Glass Menagerie or Cat on a hot Tin Roof (turns out he wrote both of them), but this one really didn’t ring a bell.

I therefor went in without any expectations at all. The first thing that struck me as very interesting was the demographic of the audience: white, middle class and middle aged. My friends and I must have reduced the average age by about ten years! The next thing I noticed were the large bowls of cough drops that were standing around. I had seen them at the opera before but I was impressed again by the genius of that idea at this time of year. Everyone hates a coughing spectator two rows behind. They also provided free cloakrooms so that the getting past other audience members in your own row was very simple by comparison.

After the first few lines of the play I realised that it must be A Streetcar Named Desire. How they came up with that translation I really don’t know. The set was quite fascinating: a square platform that kept turning anti-clockwise throughout the play. It only stopped at one or two moments in the play and only for a few seconds before resuming movement. The speed varied significantly from a slow to a pretty fast pace. At times I found myself getting a little dizzy just from watching and I was very glad to to have to get on and off or move on it. It was about sixty to seventy centimetres high as well! There was no furniture, no props, nothing on stage at the beginning and even though a few things, such as a suitcase or beer crates were added later it was always rather bare. The used props and crates were thrown off the platform into the wings that weren’t lit, but neither were they hidden or blacked off. The only other feature of the stage was a steam curtain that happened at the back of the platform and that came down as a smooth cascade of (hopefully cold) vapour. How they did that I don’t know, my friend had some ideas, but it was really cool, especially when they started projecting onto it.

In terms of the directions it was rather simple as well. The actors didn’t move unnecessarily and yet it never felt static because of the movement of the entire stage. The minimalism was really well integrated and didn't feel forced. The presence of the suitcase always showed the temporary nature of Blanches presence at Stellas place. The discarding of the props brought the violence of living together across. The relationships were as complex and difficult as Tennessee would have meant them to be. Some scenes may have been not explicit enough for everyone to understand them, but in times where violence against women, abuse and rape are on the news every day, maybe it isn’t necessary to show it all. The whole performance felt very contemporary and relatable. While I at times wished that the light was more illuminating the text itself gave justification for the darkened state by stating that Blanche prefers the dark, however, it was a little tiring for the eyes after a while. The actors all did an amazing job. All the characters were at the same time strange and relatable, real and imaginary, characters you hear about in the news. The night we were there one of the female roles was taken up by an understudy and it was a real credit to the actor that we (who hadn’t bought a programme) did not know, until we checked with an usher afterwards, who it was.

At some point I recognised some lines that felt very familiar, especially when I translated them in my head: ‘I don’t want realism, I want magic. I don’t tell the truth, I tell what ought to be the truth’. It took me about five minutes of silently saying it to myself in a northern Irish accent before I remembered that I had not heard them in a short scene or an audition piece, but rather that a devised/newly written play I had worked on had borrowed these exact lines. The same happened with the last line ‘I have always relied on the kindness of strangers’. It does show rather how important the play is still, that I knew the lines without knowing the context or their origin and being able to lead them back to the source.