I sat in my seat, staring at the stage with my eyes darting from surtitle screen to the action taking place on stage and kicking myself for not understanding German. The two hour 20 minutes long performance had no intermission and was really intense – in terms of storyline and the way director Simon McBurney chose to stage it for the audience to experience. By the end of the show, my mind was reeling and could not believe that it was ever possible to witness such technical perfection in live performance.
But then I returned to my senses and noticed some members of the audience dozing off, and realised that perhaps this level of technical perfection too sterile and calculated for the dynamism on stage we may be so used to.
So, how do I feel about the performance? I am still trying to figure it out.
Beware of Pity is an adaptation from the book by Stefan Zweig. Diving deep into the deconstruction of compassion and the consequences of this complex emotional response, the audience is invited into Hofmiller’s world as he recounts his days as a young soldier. We witness his life events snowball after his initial visit to Baron Kekesfalva’s castle. From an ignorant remark to daily tea sessions to an eventual marriage proposal, we watch the manifestations of decisions borne out of pity and the devastating events that follow.
Technologically and technically perfect, the stripped down stage was completely utilised to bring the story to life.
The curtains were removed and one could see the grid above the performance area. Lights lit up the floor, the back wall a surface of regular projections while furniture on stage are constantly shifting, moving and travelling from one end to the other. The actors themselves managed the stage manipulations, including camera equipment and the movement of set. Every surface and person belonged to the story being told – no entering or exiting – and it was almost as if one was entering a new dimension, rather than a mere performance.
Entering and playing visitors to Hofmiller’s flashbacks. Unable to leave until the entire journey was complete, and on his terms alone.
Impeccable timing was not only reserved to the technical and digital aspects of the performance, but also to the performers themselves. The cast were so good at what they were doing that there was ease and fun on stage, their energy generous and presence organic. Comprising of Marie Burchard, Robert Beyer, Johannes Flaschberger, Christoph Gawenda, Moritz Gottwald, Laurenz Laufenberg and Eva Meckbach, they alternate roles and characters. All of them juggle multiple hats – one moment they are operating in the shadows to adjust the set and in the next, they shine in the spotlight. They all know when to hold on to a moment and when to let go, which is one of the many ensemble aspirations – to place the show first, before spotlight and self.
However, beyond the memorable moments created by such well-rehearsed perfection, the show may come across as sterile in some ways. Too precise, too calculated and so distant from the reality we are so familiar with. No element could have been reliant on chance, and perhaps that is the risk that needed to be taken for more connection with the audience? To break out of that dimensional fourth wall and include the rest of us active observers?
I wish I asked the man sleeping soundly next to me if that was how he felt. Otherwise, I am happy having gotten to marvel at such a well-rehearsed piece of work that reflects the conditions and beliefs of its time.
This production of Beware of Pity was staged in Singapore as part of the Singapore International Festival of Arts. The festival is running from 16th May to 2nd June 2019.
Photos by Gianmarco Bresadola