Von Florian Malzacher
15.04.2003 / Rimini Protokoll
Last words. Usually there aren’t any, says nurse Sabine Herfurth. Except perhaps, ‘Mama’. That’s what everyone says, calls, whispers at the end. ‘Mama’. Sometimes for days. They have come full circle, from the first word to the last.
Beforehand however, everyone talks, because those who speak live and can imagine their death, like Hans-Dieter Illgner, retired mayor and initiator of a crematorium he calls Flammarium. He has already organised his funeral. Why burden the relatives with it? Olav Meyer-Sievers, an eloquent young man, speaks for others when words fail, about others, who will never be able to speak again. His job is speaking at funerals. And there is Hilmar Gesse, stonemason, for whom every person becomes a series of letters at seven euros apiece. Of Alida Schmidt, a medical student who prepares bodies for dissection, only a symbol will remain: her tattoo, which she has left to her twin sister.
The individual’s own words, own symbols, are always the focus of the works of the directors’ collective of Helgard Haug, Stefan Kaegi and Daniel Wetzel. Old ladies, kids, physicists, fare dodgers, couples, and passers-by stand on their stage - not in roles, but in person. Under the label of ‘Rimini Protokoll’ (or in the ‘Hygiene Heute’ line-up of Stefan Kaegi and Bernd Ernst) they bring "life" and "real people" into the theatre. But anyone who believes that reality is not staged and that only ‘the truth’ is authentic has misunderstood this concept.
In "Deadline" the mayor, stone mason, funeral speaker and medical student stand scattered through the Neues Cinema, still the off-theatre of the Deutsches Schauspielhaus in Hamburg, which will be closed down at the beginning of May as a symbolic victim of the cuts in financing. They talk about themselves and how they deal with death, which is part of their everyday life. The stories are serious. The small stage calls to mind a cemetery chapel with its couple of wreaths, a slab for laying out, and the portrait of an old man.
But the atmosphere is relaxed, and if you catch your breath because someone is mentioned who wanted to be in the performance but who has only a month to live (and the piece is after all due to run until the end of the year), then a cheerful distraction quickly lightens the mood.
In contrast to Italian theatre group ‘Raffaelo Sanzio’, which stages the anorexic and obese, the one-armed and those whose larynx has been removed to create an intense clash of physical presence and symbolic content, and unlike Christoph Schlingensief, who puts the focus on the disabled, neo-nazis and the unemployed, people stand on the Rimini Protokoll stage as individuals.
But staged they are, often imperceptibly, yet definitely. This is not docu-theatre. As upright as the interest of the former Gießen Theatre Studies students in people and their stories is, it is a theatrical interest. Grounded in a mistrust of representative drama and representative acting, it is an aesthetic and a philosophical consideration, not a political or a social welfare one.
Earlier works by Bernd Ernst and Stefan Kaegi as ‘Hygiene Heute’ focused on the purist question of the role we play when we’re not playing a role. With their "ready-made performers" they have put on stage a Great Dane dog, ants, and the historical Congress of Vienna as an installation with guinea pigs for the opening of the Wiener Tanzquartier. Their “Kirchner” audio-tours humorously and subtly subordinate the street’s entire daily life to their recordings and their story.
The issue that Rimini Protokoll investigates has changed. Now they are concentrating on the specific proximity to the figure that is the self, but which is still ‘performed’. What happens when Hamlet really is Hamlet and not an actor? In Frankfurt’s Mousonturm they created a mental, aesthetic but also narrative tension between the phenomenon of ageing and the phenomenon of speed - with four ladies aged in their eighties as Formula 1 racing drivers under the title of ‘Kreuzworträtsel Boxenstopp’ (‘Crossword Pit Stop’). In ‘Shooting Bourbaki’ they juxtaposed the Bourbaki myth of the neutral, industrious and business-like Swiss with pubertal shooting gallery dreams.
The inimitable strengths of these works lie especially there where, despite their proximity, a crack opens up between the role and the personality and with it a presentiment of risk – life might get the upper hand, theatre might lose its self-control.
The possibility of the unpredictable, of chance and accident is always constitutive for the theatre, but while an actor who fluffs his lines is mainly good for a laugh, the vulnerability of the Rimini Protokoll performers is always present. This is where the promise is hidden, art could be truth. And truth is archaic: "The specific thing about theatre is not the presence of a live audience but of potential mortality", as Heiner Müller said.
But in "Deadline", of all pieces, where death is so explicitly the topic, this presence is hardly felt. The skill with which Rimini Protokoll interweaves stories, levels of language, movement, light, sound and video clips, varies the speed, is impressive. The directors know the craft of classical dramaturgy.
The people on stage are never betrayed or exposed. The words, the gestures, are their own, they are just arranged differently. This time though, they seem to hide behind them and the directors with them. A feeling of cowardice in the face of the enemy remains. The enemy is carefully circled, informatively dealt with almost completely in all its facets: hospitals, wills, funerals, autopsies, statistics, death on stage. It all goes by so fast that it’s easy to lose track of the main topic, death. Rimini Protokoll’s productions stand or fall on the presence and strength of performers and with the courage with which those confront themselves. Both were lacking a little this time.
Rimini Protokoll can bring life to the stage like no other group. Death however, the authority which is, according to Benjamin, the origin of all narrative, is elsewhere this time. In real life this would be the first prize.
Further performances: From the 1st to the 4th of May in Neues Cinema, Hamburg; on the 13th and 14th of June in Schauspiel Hannover and in December in Hebbel Theater, Berlin.