Saturday, 23 August 2008

Ruhe: Or Two Rants and Some Second-rate Schubert

One day the International Festival will get bored of concept theatre and give us a theatrical performance that tells a straight story well. Perhaps they could begin by inviting back the Vienna Burgtheater. In the meantime, we are left with another evening which tries to cleverly combine different art forms, and ends up boring at least this member of its audience.

The performance takes place in the Great Hall at the Hub. In place of a seating rake, the audience is ushered into higgledy-piggledy circles of chairs, turned in on a small empty central space. While the audience is still entering, the members of Collegium Vocale Ghent, who turn out to be seated among the audience, stand up on their chairs and begin a few verses of Schubert part songs. These last nearly an hour and a quarter, interrupted by two monologues or, I think it would be more accurate to say, rants from two former Dutch collaborators trying to explain their stories. Neither component of the performance is especially engaging, and they did not mesh effectively together.

Part of the problem for me rested with the music. Schubert was not I think at his best in these songs. They all sounded rather samey to me – I was reminded of the problem I usually have with early music. This is not to say that Collegium Vocale didn’t sing well, but for all their skill they were unable to lift the music above the second tier. As for the two spoken monologues again it just wasn’t very compelling. According to the programme notes these are drawn from a book of interviews with former Dutch members of the SS (in this case a soldier and a nurse). One of the problems certainly is that the questions which broke up these originally have been deleted. There is consequently no interrogation of these accounts – hence my terming them rants. They’re also rather fragmented, disjointed – I never really got a sense of who these two people were, or felt much engagement in their plight. One of our party commented afterwards that the restless audience around us may have contributed to the problem, but in my experience a really great performance transcends such things.

The piece concludes, after the second monologue, not with Schubert but with a modern Dutch part-song, of little musical distinction, entitled Ruhe. The lights dim, the members of the choir move out from among the audience to a semi-circle of music stands, and a black and white image of a Dutch countryside scene is projected onto a screen. This presumably had some kind of symbolic intention which I missed.

I have recently seen both the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch and Ronald Harwood’s Taking Sides, extraordinary explorations of themes similar to those which Ruhe attempted to address. Compared to those pieces, this is a disappointment. I was unconvinced by the pairing of Schubert with these monologues, and neither packed sufficient emotional punch. At £17 for the privilege this is most certainly overpriced.

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