Quartett

BATS Theatre, Wellington

24/01/2006 - 28/01/2006

Production Details


Written by Heiner Mueller

Directed by Bronwyn Tweddle


A physical theatre production of a classic German performance text.

Merteuil and Valmont – the two main characters from Choderlos de Laclos’ novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses – engage in battle. Their earlier passion has mutated into a cynical ritual of mutual humiliation in which wordplay replaces intimacy, and point-scoring replaces love. Their role-play traps them in a downward spiral of perverted images of affection: to the point of self-destruction.

In Quartett, Mueller compares the games of pre-revolutionary France’s decadent aristocracy to the psychological torture inflicted by functionaries of the East German (DDR) regime, and highlights a basic tenet of human relationships – those who know us best can hurt us most.


CAST
Ciara Mulholland
Brian Hotter


Theatre ,


Existential angst at Bats

Review by John Smythe 31st Mar 2006

Initially it’s very refreshing to see talented young actors exploring a non-naturalistic but emotionally centred physicality.

As they role-play the Marchioness de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, as adapted by Heiner Müller in 1980/81 from the 1782 letter-series novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre-Ambroise-Francoise Choderlos de Laclos, Ciara Mulholland and Brian Hotter exhibit impressive flexibility and control.

According to American dramaturg Joe Martin (www.tutato.com), Müller – who trained with Bertolt Brecht at the Berliner Ensemble then became its co-artistic director until his death in 1996 – "began writing ‘synthetic fragments’, for the stage, offering more freedom to directors, choreographers and designers who needed to find new ways to attack the material for each new production."

"I’m not interested in answers and solutions," Müller told his translator Carl Weber (another influential theatre man groomed at the Berliner Ensemble). "I don’t have any to offer. I am interested in problems and conflicts … I am neither a dope dealer nor a hope-dealer."

Director Bronwyn Tweddle (a lecturer in the Theatre Programme of Victoria University of Wellington), describes the work as having the appeal "of a giant jigsaw puzzle. In the beginning it looks like a huge, wild jumble, and your task is to sift through it finding the pieces and working out how they fit together."

Set in a "timespace" described as a "Drawing room before the French Revolution [and an] Air raid shelter after World War Three", the pair approach their time-filling and body-exploring roles with an alienated, sordid fascination in the challenges and art of seduction for its own sake, often counter-pointing their relentless verbal commentary with flashes of feeling and passion.

The conflicts between spiritual grace and pleasures of the flesh, and reason and emotion, are timeless and universal. Both players use reason and metaphysical discourse – referencing Nietzsche and de Sade – to deflect the emotional hurts that threaten to puncture their languid and inexorable decline into existential angst. Quartett would happily (if that’s the word) share a season with Sartre’s Huit Clos (No Exit) and Genet’s The Maids.

The characters are trapped in a Hell of their own making. So too are the actors, obliged to keep giving externalised physical expression to their inner feelings. Or were their gestures and gyrations commenting at some other level? Either way, it becomes an intellectual exercise, trying to decode the conflations of word and action. Perhaps the point is there is no point; the quest for solutions to the perceived conundrums of the performance, and life itself, is futile.

Whether you find it intuitively engaging or an over-extended and self-proving treatise on how indulgence becomes inevitably tedious, it is a welcome production. Wellington theatre would be the poorer if places like Bats, directors like Tweddle, actors like Mulholland and Hotter, and space/lighting designers like Martyn Roberts (deftly arranging a mirror, Perspex panes and light) were not free and willing to challenge and expand themselves, their audiences and their art with work like this.

Comments

Brian Hotter February 26th, 2006

The movement from Quartett is composed using various random and not so random, activities, photos, paintings, sculptures and poses from song titles, sport signals etc... Every line had a action suited to it. For example - "The matter is urgent, before the niece can become the aunt the lesson has to be learnt" - the Action for the line came from starting up a lawn mower. Add on top of this: making sense of the sumptuous text and the relationship, given circumstances, the moments within the role in which one character tells the other how they really feel about them and themselves, the physicalisation, the vocalisation and (dare I say it?) a splash of magic; you end up with 'Quartett'. I found this experience rewarding and challenging. I hope people who see the show feel the same way too.

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Taut, spare, marvellously sustained

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 31st Mar 2006

Marchioness de Merteuil and Vicomte de Valmont, the heartless, sexually scheming aristocrats of Choderlos de Laclos’s famous epistolary novel of the 18th century, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, have been dramatised in the 20th century by English playwright Christopher Hampton as well as transformed into wealthy, bored New York teenagers in the Hollywood movie Cruel Intentions.

However, in 1980 before Hampton and the movie, the East German playwright and disciple of Brecht, Heiner Müller, who was seen in the German Democratic Republic as a dissident Marxist but was later appointed director of Brecht’s theatre, The Berliner Müller places the Marchioness and the Vicomte in a "time-space" that starts in a drawing room before the French Revolution and ends in an air raid shelter after World War Three. Here in this enclosed Sartre-like setting they play out their fantasies, role-playing each other as well a Volanges and Tourvel, two intended victims of the scheming aristocrats, fully aware they are heading towards extinction.

On the way they descend into the sexual excesses that are offered by de Sade ("May be it’s violence that unlocks the key to my heart, " says Merteuil) as well as the glittering promises of God-like power over their victims that Nietzsche offers them.

In their quest for power over each other and their cynical use of innocent people to satisfy their perverted desires the 18th century aristocrats Merteuil and Valmont come to represent all elites seeking even more wealth and power as they seal themselves off from humanity as the world hurtles towards Armageddon.

In Bronwyn Tweddle’s taut, spare production Ciara Mulholland and Brian Hotter give strong, open and marvellously sustained performances, combining successfully Müller’s powerful language (in translation by Carl Weber) and dance-like movements that reinforce and underline their speeches.

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Intense, deadly, worth it

Review by Lynn Freeman 31st Mar 2006

Phew!!  Occasionally words are hard to find to describe theatrical productions.  This is one of those shows.  Translated from Heiner Mueller’s unsurpisingly controversial 1980-81 play,  Quartett is a study of sexual excess where the greater the love the more unutterable the cruelty.   He has chosen his protagonists well, the two equally despicable creatures from Les Liaisons Dangereuses – the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marchioness de Merteuil.

He traps them together in a bunker and forces them to relieve their conquests – the seduction of both Merteuil’s virginal niece and a former rival.   The Marchioness urged a not unwilling Vicomte to both conquests as the price for renewing their sexual liaison.  It turns into a price far higher than either could have possibly imagined, and not only for their victims.

While feeling more academic than theatrical, the script presents huge challenges – physically and emotionally – to the two hard working cast.  Ciara Mulholland and Brian Hotter, both superb and giving it everything they’ve got, have to leave any inhibitions well and truly behind them in performances which are incredibly explicit (interestingly, without nudity).  They fight constantly and bloodily, but their words hurt far more than the bruises.   

Tweddle and her cast have done a remarkable job of interpreting the script, with the director’s notes in the invaluably informative programme telling us the playwright gives few clues as the actors dip in and out of their deadly role-play.

It’s an intense play that, while gorgeously written, drags a little in the first part where the Vicomte and the Marchioness trade memories and insults.  But the dynamics between the Vicomte and his victims are fascinating and the word play intoxicating and surprisingly funny.  Martyn Robert’s ingenious lighting brings an unearthly quality to their surroundings and intensifies the on stage action.

It’s not a comfortable or easy 75 minutes for the audience, a feat of endurance for us and the actors.  But worth it.

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