By Stefanie Müller-Franke
09.01.2004 / Tagesspiegel
Witnesses always have to say the truth. But who knows that the accused may lie straight into the judge’s face? Or that there is no time-limit to the last words of the accused. So that’s why he could – in theory – read out the complete telephone directory, before the sentence can be announced.
Court of Criminal Justice, Berlin-Moabit. The three directors of Rimini-Protokoll were in the audience themselves to do research for their current piece „Zeugen! Ein Strafkammerspiel” (Witnesses! A play of Criminal Court Matters). “ They observed the trials for weeks: minor thefts and cases of physical violence, drug-dealing or offending officers. What they could see here had little to do with the popular trial-shows on television. No exciting verbal duels between lawyer and prosecutor, no passionate final address to the court, no melodramatic outbursts in tears or remorseful confessions of guilt. Instead, it was a bureaucratically choreographed order of events where every little detail up to the seating order was regulated, and which to the onlooker appears like an alien ritual.
The three directors, Helgard Haug, Stefan Kaegi and Daniel Wetzel – born between 1969 and 1972 – hired not professional actors, but amateurs for their piece. In fact those who are professionals at court: A juror and a court correspondent, a prosecutor, a court draughtsman, and a companion to the witnesses. They could even get an accused who addresses the judge with her last words. On stage they all play themselves - and recapitulate the ritual of the legal drama whose most exact observers they have become over the years.
The prosecutor allows a look into the files of exciting cases, the court draughtsman tells stories about criminals, and that she forgets them much faster than she originally thought she would. The court companion explains her task precisely how to help victims of rape to get through the trial, while the carpenter builds the witness-bench and the barriers for the public for the stage design – remaking on how much he would prefer to build the interiors of luxury-liner in the Mediterranean.
The directors team call their amateur actors “experts on every-day life”, and the collaboration with these protagonists forms the documentary foundation of their work. The magazine “Theater Heute” nominated it as “up-and-coming directors” of the previous year. They reconstruct reality and its rules onto the stage with facts, precision and full of information without dismissing minor details. The reports of the experts become exciting, and even funny especially when they reveal bizarre details of their professional lives, or use personal tendencies and advantages for their own purposes. “Deadline” (2003), a piece on dying shows this also. This time, employees of the undertaker’s business were speaking up. Their natural way of dealing with the corpse cast an unsentimental light upon death: a topic which is either tabooed or blown out of proportions by the media.
The young directors met at the Gießen Institute of Applied Theatre Studies, and their method of working may seem rather sober – or sobering. On starting a new project they get out their note books first of all, and go through sketches and draughts as if undertaking a post-mortem. They dissect reality without an instruction manual on how to re-assemble it. They clarify things which should be already clear to an enlightened mind. Still, a missionary zeal is alien to them. They are more like a clearing-out enterprise: They free the stage of the reminding or pointing finger as well as trendy and tiresome self-references. Instead of giving art new publicity they invite the public into the theatre. Or even simpler: They present the theatricality of public stages like the court to the public.
For instance, they raised great interest with their project “Deutschland 2” in which the session of the German Parliament of June 27th simultaneously copied. This should have taken place in the former House of Parliament on Bonn, but had to be re-located into the Schauspielhaus (Theatre) because the President of the German Parliament intervened. By letting people represent the peoples’ representatives of the Senate they created a grotesque copy of the speeches in Parliament: The parliamentary stage turned into a public performance.
Rimini-Protokoll uses this same effect of presenting the theatricality of public rituals in their Play of Criminal Court Matters. The “experts” re-stage a legal drama with the same interest of witnesses when reconstructing the act of the crime. And so the protagonists become witnesses to the witnesses. So, the truth, and nothing but the truth?
Far from. It has been proven that many witnesses purposely don’t tell the truth despite their oath. And the other part is convinced to tell the truth, but cannot remember exact details. Just like the famous bang-witnesses who turn their head only after the crash, but still insist to be able to describe the events of the accident precisely. It’s all down to the correct presentation – at court and in the theatre. Rimini-Protokoll pulled of a coup with a strike of genius with Witnesses! Play of Criminal Court Matters: They are believed in because they find themselves guilty of a lie.