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DIFFERENT SETTINGS BRILLIANTLY EXECUTED

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THE HORSES ARE READY
by Swiss playwright Guy Krneta
translated and directed by Bronwyn Tweddle

at Studio 77, VUW, Wellington
From 4 Jun 2014 to 7 Jun 2014

Reviewed by Charlotte Simmonds, 6 Jun 2014


Guy Krneta belongs to the generation of Swiss writers I have heard referred to as “Frisch's grandchildren”. It's a script that reeks of absurdism (my former German lecturer would be most unhappy to have me put the Swiss playwrights of the 50s and 60s in the same basket as the French, but there it is), with elements borrowed from Beckett and Sartre.

Six characters are trapped in a space, talking endlessly about leaving and endlessly taking their leave of each other, but the audience begins to wonder if it is even possible for them to leave, and of course, they argue and fight because “hell is other people”.

But it's not just that. Like Frisch's writing, this can also be political. I am even tempted to read it as a question posed to Rilke's poem ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo' saying, “Can art change your life? Can theatre? Does it have to? Is it able to? Can art tell me to change my life? Can it tell me what to do? And is it enough to change myself or must I change the entire world from the bottom up?” 

Fortunately for theatre students, the script is very open and very blank. The only stage direction is that the play can be set anywhere. In this way, the playwright leaves it open to the practitioners to superimpose meaning on a reasonably void text. Some might consider that lazy scriptwriting. Others might consider it a director's dream come true. 

Highlighting how open to interpretation the script is, THEA 302 stages two completely different productions of the same script, with entirely different casts, set in entirely different time periods. On the 4th June, I see The Horses Are Ready set in something like the Führer's bunker. On the 5th June, I see it set in East Germany during the Cold War.

On the first night we have the ‘baddies' wondering whether they should not, in fact, change their lives, get out of Germany and start anew (in Brazil?). A script that could just as easily be a relationship drama, about lovers or family members or a flat breakup, now becomes Nazi leaders discussing how to divide up Jewish loot and who will take the rap for their crimes.

On the second night we have the ‘goodies' wanting to leave a Stalinist police state for the brighter life of capitalism in West Germany, and here the pervasive notion that all the characters are delusional in believing that they even can leave becomes not just a metatheatrical trope about being stuck inside a script, but is a real situation that has happened in many such states in the past and continues in North Korea today.

The students have chosen real contemporary and historical people on which to base and develop their characters, ranging from Eva Braun in the Third Reich to David Bowie in the GDR. It all gets extremely bizarre when we end up with a female actor playing a male character based on a female historical figure, which occurs in both productions, and gives me a lot of cause to wonder how much ‘body language' is gender-specific, who teaches it to us and where we get it from. How does a female learn to ‘speak' in the body language of a male? How does a male ‘speak' in the body language of a female without it instantly turning into a drag routine? In these productions, none of the female actors manage it. Male actors all play male characters based on male historical figures and the problem is not raised for them.

I feel loath to reduce such time periods to something as basic as ‘good' and ‘bad' but I think for many of the students participating in these productions, that may not be a terrible idea. I am slightly disturbed by the some of the notes the Nazi Germany cast have written about their characters. I understand that it may be hard to connect to a ‘bad' guy or that you want to like the glamorous woman you're playing, but I think it is important to be reminded that yes, you can try to understand these people, but no, you should not sympathise with them.

Would you have done the same? Yes, you probably would have, which is precisely why they do not need the sympathy. I know it's history and I know you're sick of hearing about it, but holocausts will happen again and again. I know it's hard to find a female character from the Third Reich that you like and that only one of you can be Sophie Scholl, but do you really want to tell me, “Yes, Hitler was a mean man responsible for the deaths of millions but don't forget that he was also a vegetarian and look how kind he was to his dog?” No. 

So don't spin me this nonsense about how badly women were treated as sexual objects under the Third Reich either. It's no different to how women are treated today. Don't forget that when Traudl Junge saw the memorial to Sophie Scholl and realised they had been the same age, even she said that she had had no excuse. And when you say, “Yes, Lída Baarová was Goebbels' girlfriend but why can't she be remembered for how beautiful she was instead?”, aren't you mistreating Baarová in exactly the same way as the men of the 30s and 40s did, instead of holding her accountable for her actions or lack of such, as a human being with a perfectly functional and equal brain? Understand. Don't sympathise. 

Bronwyn Tweddle has produced a good translation and the different settings of the two shows have been brilliantly executed and work a lot better than I would have predicted. It might have been interesting to see two different translations performed (would that have defeated the purpose?) and I would have liked a more ambiguous ending for the East Germans, but the entire concept was outstanding, and in the end, it's a production for theatre students, not a study in literary translation. It's certainly worth seeing both versions. 

Interestingly, a much earlier version of the German play was titled something like The Leave-Takers or People Saying Goodbye. I think I would have preferred the playwright to keep his first title.
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Comments

Challenger3 posted 7 Jun 2014, 04:15 PM
 

Wow. I wanted a review, not a lecture. The banality of evil is an important concept and this review is holier than thou. Steam now officially let off!

John Smythe posted 7 Jun 2014, 04:58 PM
 

This review engages with the essence of the exercise in a heartfelt way. I'd see that as a plus.

Batman posted 7 Jun 2014, 10:24 PM / edited 7 Jun 2014, 10:26 PM
 

This play was grim. 
I saw the Nazi rendition.

This is an absurd script, broken with alienation effects.
The whole idea of a script like this is that it makes you feel desperate and circular and frustrated. Feeling sorry for the characters, and in a sense yourselves for being caught up in such rediculous mind numbing nonsense.
By having an alienating performance with their, only-move-while-talking-and-only-talk-while-moving and the character announced scene changes, It only served to take away the only thing that gave the script a semblance of value.

Challenger3 posted 8 Jun 2014, 01:14 AM
 

John, with respect,  this review resembles a lecture and presumes a naivety on behalf of readers that is patronising and has a moral superiority to it that will rile people. 

Simon Taylor posted 8 Jun 2014, 09:37 AM
 

"the essence of the exercise" ! - what is that? patronising nonsense.


the review needs a good subbing, has as many mistakes as a student essay - the essence of the exercise?


I'm not quite sure who is going to be 'riled' by it however. Suggestions?

ragingsoutherner posted 8 Jun 2014, 03:04 PM / edited 8 Jun 2014, 03:05 PM
 

I'd like to set the tone for this comment with this simple preface: this review made me vomit. 

The first paragraph, which was hard enough to get through seeing as the very first sentence held a grammar error that would make any seven year old who knows the English language cringe, set the scene of pretentiousness, arrogance, and down right bitchiness for the rest of the review. My apologies, but I was under the impression that The Horses Are Ready was a university level show being performed by a group of twentysomethings and not an outlet for literary hacks to bash so they can feel good about themselves. In other words, this whole review read like a bitter outcast pouting in the back while the cool kids all got to hang out on stage. 

I saw this show, and that makes me wonder if YOU saw this show. Because clearly we were not watching the same thing. First of all, to condemn these two groups of people to such degrading categories as "goodies" and "baddies" is a folly in itself. Yes, we can all agree that Nazis are bad. But is a person bad just because he or she is a Nazi? THAT'S THE POINT OF THE WHOLE DAMN SHOW. Look at the Nazi woman who, while being portrayed by possibly the most talented actress out of either performance, changes her mind and is killed by the man she loves because of it. So do not sit on your cushy chair of condescension and tell the readers, and more importantly, tell THE ACTUAL PERFORMERS, not to sympathise with these characters. Let the people decide who they want to sympathise with. I do not know how much Hitler liked his dog or if he even had one, but that dog may have loved Hitler with all his heart and it's not our place to condemn him for that.

On a final note, I thought the females that portayed males performed brilliantly and who cares if they chose females to base their character on? I think its more sexist to say that they could have only picked someone the same gender as their character because "only males can relate to males and only females to females?" Bull shit. Besides, do we not get to each decide our own gender anyway? Who are we to say that Eva Braun didn't identify herself as being of male gender? We don't know! Heck, we weren't there!

In conclusion, Jesus H. Christ. Get a cat, get laid, do SOMETHING. And next time actually pay attention to the damn play that you show up to review.

John Smythe posted 8 Jun 2014, 05:25 PM
 

First, I apologise for the uncorrected error in the opening para (now corrected). Second, I did not see either iteration of this play so am limited in what I can say. As the editor of the review, I felt the response the production(s) provoked said something important and interesting about it. Obviously the review in itself has provoked even greater passion. Fair enough. But the personal attacks on the reviewer rather than the arguments are not, in my opinion, helpful or fair.

anon posted 9 Jun 2014, 04:45 PM / edited 9 Jun 2014, 04:46 PM
 

I too saw neither 'iteration' - ('iteration'? really?) - of this play, and this confusing diatribe ensures I would never risk it. As a potential audience member unfamilar with the work, its background or with the process the company have used to explore it, I'm left with absolutely no idea what to expect, or what it was trying to achieve; however I do get a pretty good outline of the reviewer's prejudices, in which I am not the slightest bit interested.  And I do resent being told beforehand who I should or shouldn't be feeling any sympathy for! This sort of bullying invites perfectly reasonable criticism of the reviewer in my view, so contrary to John Smythe's assertion I feel the personal attacks are both helpful and fair - it's good to know I'm not on my own.