Robert Walser according to Gisèle Vienne by Alessandro Iachino

The seven puppets on which it opens remain visible for only a few minutes The Etang (The pond): placed in a milky whiteness environment, slumped on the floor or leaning against the wings, the dolls are soon transported out of the scene, with disarming delicacy, by a stage technician. Their mute presence, as enigmatic as it is fleeting, at times seems to be able to deceive the viewer’s perception; that they are really inorganic, those figures lying on the bed in the center of the space? Or is it rather a clever make-up to conceal the features of the performers, to change their faces to the point of making them crystallized in a vacuity of wax? It is a theoretical ambiguity, even before being aesthetic, what Gisèle Vienne seems to want to determine in the first, fulminating moments of her new creation, almost a seal placed on a twenty-year research carried out not only around the possibilities offered by the use of puppetbut rather the fleeting margins between existence and its absence, between human and post-human, between gender and sex.

Born in 1976, with a degree in philosophy and studies from the École Supérieure Nationale des Arts de la Marionette in Charleville-Mézières, the Franco-Austrian director has impressed a very personal figure in European theater. Since directing shared with Étienne Bideau-Rey – her first collaboration is in 2000, a version of Splendid’s by Jean Genet – Vienne in fact seemed to focus attention on the areas of contact and conflict between the universe of actors and that of puppet, to the point of confusing their characteristics, blurring the expectations of the gaze, acting on living bodies as if they were puppets and on puppets as if they were made of flesh and blood. And The Etang is properly inscribed in the path: taken from a theatrical text by Robert Walser, entrusts the group of mannequins and only two actresses – the extraordinary Adèle Haenel and Henrietta Wallberg – with the task of embodying an entire family of characters, suggestions, possible lives .

Ph. Jean-Louis Fernandez.

Presented in April as part of the Milanese FOG Festival, and recently landed in Rome, in the program of Short Theater – within a dense solo show dedicated to the artist – finally in Prato, as the inaugural event of the 2022 edition of Contemporary, The Etang condenses in the incipit the fraying of any dichotomy, the mixing of binarisms now in a flow of matter into life, now in the overlapping of identities.

The puppets appear androgynous, even asexual: dressed in the anonymous and global look of adolescents, they can be girls or boys, young men or young women of any western metropolis, caught in the boredom of a moment or an entire age of life. Around them the leftovers of meals consumed in solitude, empty cans, a stereo turned on to offer a continuous bass to the progression of desires and fears: above all an unmade bed, on which two dolls lie in a soft embrace.

Emptied by puppetthe scene recalls the dazzling intuition of Tracey Emin, who in 1999 exhibited at Tate Britain My Bed, the bed on which for days and days he had tried to soothe the pain of a broken relationship, including condoms, dirty clothes, handkerchiefs, cigarette butts. Around those crumpled sheets, still warm from a nervous sleep, there remained the vestiges of a finished love, the imprints of a failure were imposed on the sight, the signs of confused hours spent staring at ceilings and walls.

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Ph. Ilaria Costanzo.

On the other hand, an unhappy love is also the engine of the thin affair of The Etang, returned to us by the bodies and voices of Haenel and Wallberg: here, to choke the breath and contract the stomach, it is the coldness that the protagonist Fritz perceives from his parents, an extraneousness to his family so excruciating as to convince him to simulate a suicide , announcing his own drowning in the title pond. Author of the drama was Robert Walser in the early years of the last century, cited several times by Vienne as a teacher and source of inspiration: published posthumously (in Italian it is available in the volume Comedypublished by Adelphi with the translation by Cesare De Marchi) the scenic piece constituted the macabre and significant gift that the Swiss author offered his sister Fanny on the occasion of a birthday.

The text is also dense with stratified and ambivalent fraternal ties, in which envy and complicity merge in a whirlpool of dizzying and elusive feelings, which language appears capable only of bringing together: words follow one another inane, metaphors appear opaque, as if depths of truth were hidden between the silences and the voids. Here, in this gray area, Vienne has worked with admirable dramaturgical excavation, amplifying the senses and identifying the dark knots of the jokes, those ill-concealed movements that the words spoken in the family homes – in the our houses – intercept only for brief, fortuitous moments.

The fields of tension between Fritz and his brothers, or between Fritz and his parents, constitute the fabric above which the director embroiders allusions on possible incest, on violent and sadistic sexuality, on the paths that desire shares with horror. How doppelgängerthe mannequins of the prologue manifest other existences, invisible but nonetheless real twin lives: they are ghosts of the psyche, projections and repressed, traumas and nightmares (and not surprisingly, Bernard Vouilloux entitled Ghost stages the volume dedicated to the artist and published in Italy by Nero as part of the Short Books series, created in collaboration with Short Theater).

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Ph. Estelle Hanania.

So moving is the care with which the puppets are led by the technician behind the scenes: to move that man – tragically out of scene, outside the stage of Fritz’s life – is the respect due to the fragility, the scars, the wounds that those dolls seem to bear on a skin of cloth and wood. Mechanical actions instead harness the superb Adèle Haenel and Henrietta Wallberg, whose gestures force them into an exhausting slow motion, to a fixity worthy of a tableau vivant. Their entrance, from the right corner of the stage now deprived of the puppets, recalls the analogous diagonal in slow that opened Crowdpresented at the Biennale Teatro in 2018, then replicated at Centrale Fies in 2019 and in these days on stage in Rome: a disturbing walk of exasperating slowness, a sequence of steps broken down millimetrically into single moments of immobility.

The surgical work on the body, the photographic attention to the individual positions assumed in space – that in Crowddedicated to the culture of rave, reached heights of exceptionality – here they are bearers of further perspectives: they highlight an incurable dyscrasia between body and voice, an impossible pacification between word and action, which follow one another without consequentiality, without points of tangency, illuminating only the lines of force – physical, but above all psychological – that inhabit Fritz’s house. Perpetually lagging behind the rhythm of feelings, the many protagonists of Walser’s drama pursue words and their real meanings: language always proves to be fallacious, perhaps even useless.

The publicly announced suicide itself is, on the other hand, just a bluff, a lie that hides an atrocious need for love, and Vienne exacerbates this hypocritical nature of language by entrusting the actresses with a plurality of roles. The jokes of Fritz, of playmates Paul and Klara, of his father and mother thus follow each other without intervals, often making it difficult to fully grasp the plot and the succession of individual episodes: yet, in this massing of speeches to which they do not correspond sensible gestures or coherent actions, what emerges in all its explosive power is the lump of dark passions that stir the souls on stage. Above an acoustic carpet that mixes techno sounds with feral verses, Haenel and Wallberg now collapse deflated by pain, now they impose themselves sculptural and seductive, now they seek impossible contacts, showing the ancipitus, irresoluble emotional twists that bind their many incarnations .

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Ph. Ilaria Costanzo.

The Etang, in this sense, it imposes itself as a Freudian probe thrown into the ferocity of family ties, a Central European and early twentieth century denunciation of the brutal violence compressed in the relationships encoded by parental ties. But it is also a glance of stringent contemporaneity on adolescence, the age in which what Not it appears easier to delineate: a transversal theme throughout the director’s production, the middle age outlined by Vienne appears as an open space, in which impulses explode with unexpected and not always innocent results. Jerk, created in 2008, is the fictional reconstruction of a series of murders perpetrated in the 1970s by the American serial killer Dean Corll and his teenage accomplices; the raver from Crowd they seem to combine outbursts of violence with gestures of affection; Fritz’s self-harm is not exempt from studied cruelty.

Metamorphic is also the gender expression that the performers’ bodies propose on stage, in a fluidity of roles – scenic and sexual – which shows Vienne’s sensitivity towards the transformations underway in art as much as in society. And yet the French-Austrian director seems to betray any peaceful adherence to current demands, promoting experiences that shy away from reassurance and ethical schematisms, challenging the public to undertake a recognition, a reflection in those existences. borderline and excessive that unfold on stage. Lives on the border, so far from our everyday life – so similar to us, willing to do so much, for anything, just to feel a little love on us.

The last photograph is by Ilaria Costanzo.

Robert Walser according to Gisèle Vienne by Alessandro Iachino