Magicians and Military Strategies

Not only do ladies suddenly vanish, weapons of mass destruction do, too. "Der Zauberlehrling" by Rimini Protokoll in Berlin‘s HAU knows quite a few tricks.


04.06.2009 / TAZ

Unbelievable, I’m sitting here in the theatre and watching magicians.
Unbelievable, not only because Markus Kompa, lawyer and hobby-magician, makes first a small table and then a young woman float through the air. It’s particularly unbelievable because the young woman floating is not a performer but Iceland’s former and only military press officer, Herdis Sigurgrimsdottir, and because Kompa talks during the entire performance about the history of magicians in the army and the common aspects of their strategies of manipulation: You’re supposed to see something and you do see it.
This is not a circus show or an evening’s light entertainment on a cruise ship, but a production by Rimini Protokoll. Their newest piece, "Der Zauberlehrling" (“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”), co-produced by the Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus and Berlin‘s Hebbel am Ufer, sets out in search of magicians and military strategies. This evening’s thesis is that the two have something to do with each other, which is proven with the help of four ‘experts’.
Each of them has an unusual story. Herdis was a reporter for Icelandic TV at the beginning of 2007 when she found out that Iceland, a Nato member but a country with no army, still wanted to contribute to the Nato mission in Iraq. She applied for a job as press officer. Her short talk about how she trained the soldiers’ media skills is one of the most instructive passages in "Der Zauberlehrling". Stanislav Petrov also has a special story. A former lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Union, he was on duty in 1983 when a computer and satellite-assisted monitoring system reported a missile attack from the USA. Not trusting this alone, but waiting for the results of a second control system was his special achievement. In doing so, he saved the world from a war that the false alarm could easily have launched.
The magic tricks with which Kompa and Günter Klepke, the ‘king’ of Berlin’s magicians, accompany the performance, are often of a symbolic nature. “Don’t believe your eyes”, they both say, and then make things disappear and reappear with great delight. Kompa draws cunning comparisons with the notorious weapons of mass destruction that the USA used to justify its mission in Iraq and which were then seen no more.
Klepke, who in this performance in Berlin’s Hebbel am Ufer is just 200 metres away from the theatre he worked in as a Foley artist 60 years ago, began his present career entertaining American soldiers as a magician and musician in Berlin after the war. He shows us how to simulate the marching of an entire military unit with a piece of paper. Herdis shows us how to remove unwanted information from photographs using Photoshop. Making things appear and then disappear is not only the stock-in-trade of magicians.
The stories of these four repeatedly intersect on their small variety stage. If their thematic juxtaposition sometimes brings to mind more the dramaturgy of gossip magazines, it is still excellently resolved in terms of form. Sometimes a ‘missing link’ between one story and the next is visually conjured up, sometimes narrative strands are connected via a historical date, or sometimes via a helpful stand-in, as when Herdis takes on the role of the lady who Kompa makes vanish, or Klepke provides the acoustic background to a story.
"Der Zauberlehrling" derives its very special charm, however, from the contrast between the gesture of explanation, which is ascribed to all language used in this piece, and its evident contradiction in the illusions of the two magicians, who would be damned before they’d explain them. That’s exactly the strength of Helgard Haug and Daniel Wetzel’s production, drawing us in with our fondness for illusions before they even begin to talk about true and false images. If this were a film, it might have been made by Alexander Kluge, who grants pictorial associations as much space as historical research.
Directors’ collective Rimini Protokoll sometimes pursues a ‘logic of renunciation’. The more theatrically the real powers present themselves, the less ‘theatre’ Rimini Protokoll use. This has led up to their last project, "Annual Shareholders’ Meeting", in which they invited potential theatre-goers to attend the Daimler corporation’s annual general meeting – that‘s it. Here, the post-dramatic concept has been contracted to the gesture of indication. "Der Zauberlehrling" therefore seems like a lighter ‘counter programme’, if only because it also goes into the history of theatre and the creation of illusions.


The sorcerer's apprentice