By Lewis Crofts
31.05.2007 / The Bulleting
Some claim you can’t perform Das Kapital. It’s longer than the Bible, has less plot than a Belgacom phonebook and its linguistic texture is like a barium meal. Surely it’s impossible to dramatise primitive accumulation and supply-side economics. Well, not if you take eight people and interweave their personal stories with Marxism which was, after all, arguably history’s most dramatic political movement.
Rimini Protokoll, the avant-garde German trio staging Das Kapital at the KVS, has assembled a cast of disparate individuals, all of whom have been affected by contact with Marx’s teachings, either directly, as in the case of a university professor, or tangentially, as in that of a Belgian teenager evicted from a modern-day commune.
While each character recounts his or her tale, the backbone of the performance remains Das Kapital. The book is everywhere: on shelves, projected on TV screens, emblazoned on clothes and distributed to the audience. Thomas Kuczynski, the professor, even looks like the wild-bearded author.
And yet we leave behind the grand ideas of socio-politics and are instead carried away by the comic and tragic tales of the characters. Crucially, they are not professional actors but rather real people – electricians, translators, businessmen – all of whom have been caught under the wheels of Marxism.
The star is Christian Spremberg. Blind since birth, he makes his way tentatively around the stage, reading out loud a Braille version of Das Kapital and playing the audience selections from his extensive yet crass record collection. Fascinating and warmly comic, Spremberg is an obvious focus for our sympathies due to his disabilitiy and amiable delivery. Yet, because he is at centre-stage, we are conversely drawn deeply to the other characters.
The eldest is a Russian-speaking Latvian who fled west as a child with his mother when Soviet troops invaded in 1944. He tells the horrific story of his dysentery-ridden return to his homeland by cattle-train. On one occasion, a Polish woman makes a tempting proposal to his mother, offering to take the boy to safety in exchange for some bread and milk. The mother hesitates briefly but decides to keep her child. While this makes an obvious point about market economics (human life as commodity), it plunges the audience into the grimmest experience of Communism. From that moment on, the impact of the dense text nestling in the audience’s laps really hits home.
Although it’s easy to land blows against Marxism, Rimini Protokoll refrain from taking cheap shots. While Das Kapital may be responsible for the Latvian’s trauma, an ordinary electrician growing up in West Germany’s cosy capitalist society becomes a gambling addict and runs himself and his family into dire straits. Indeed, most of the caracters display a love for Marx rather than a dislike for him. One of the most endearing characters is Kuczynski, a professor who has devoted his life’s work to the German thinker and whose eyes glisten when he reads from his text. Similarly, it emerges that Jochen Noth – speaking fluent Chinese on stage – spent years in Beijing championing the Communist cause before returning to Germany, where he was imprisoned for his Marxist activism.
This multifaceted performance is the brainchild of Helgard Haug and Daniel Wetzel, who are known as Rimini Protokoll. They have a reputation for creating unconventional theatre, often with unprofessional actors. In 2002 they staged an event in Hannover’s main square in which the unwitting public was part of the performance.
With Das Kapital, Rimini Protokoll’s choice of subject is once again bold and their production scintillating. Despite a minor slip into flag waving near the end, the audiences’s attention is skilfully managed and manipulated with video images, books, lights, music, songs and demonstrations. And when spectators hand back their copies of Das Kapital on the way out, they leave with an understanding of the book’s effect without necessarily ever having opened it.