stuttgart calixto bieito parsifal (+ andrew)

It seems the nature of seeing a performance in another city also involves lengthy missed trains on the return for Dasniya and I. Departing a minute before our arrival (or probably while we were stumbling around Stuttgart Hauptbahnhof looking for the line to Berlin), we decided to jump on one to Frankfurt on the next line over. Opting not to get off at Frankfurt Flughafen, instead waiting 11 minutes to arrive in Frankfurt itself, those minutes passed until we landed in Bonn.

S-Bahn to Köln, another quick change and on to Berlin via Hannover and other interesting places. Only an hour late arriving but the last three nights had been short on sleep, so I proceeded to do just that.

Calixto Bieito is new to me. Andrew Richards told me about him in Brussels and thought I’d love his style of mayhem, and with Andrew being Parsifal in both productions, taking a cheap-ish train to a city I’d never been in for a night of Wagner seemed like a good idea.

Firstly to say that while I made comparisons between the Castellucci and Bieito versions while watching and after, there is also a gulf between them which makes some a matter of aesthetic preference. Nonetheless, even though the two directors are quite distant from each other in both intellectual and aesthetic concerns (as meta-analysis in the role of director as well as in artistic choices within Parsifal), they seem to me to share a commonality I’ll try and elucidate.

The music then. (And the theatre.) I thought the orchestra was smaller than at La Monnaie, though also heard different that it was larger. Stuck in the right crook of the gods for the first act (a not-good location both for acoustics as well as line of sight due to the staging construction), it all felt a little distant. Acts two and three though — we spied a couple of seats, stalls second row far left, empty! (Turns out these were probably the ones reserved for us anyway). A brilliant location, close enough to feel the warmth of the flamethrower!

I can’t compare the conductor here favourably with Hartmut Haenchen. It’s a matter of intensity. Haenchen has spent years immersed in Wagner, his understanding of subtleties is acute, from the phrasing of consonants to the speed in different sections; the build at the beginning of act 2 for example. The audience thought Manfred Honeck did a fine job, but for me I feel a little spoiled after Haenchen.

Two moments underlined this. The first being the shout of the knights at the end of act 3. Heanchen (ok he also had 200 extras adding weight), timed it a little later, just before a melodic change, and also the shout was more of a roar, like the ocean, it had a pronounced, shivering emotion, yet not one specific emotion, somehow this gave a resolution that the roaring in Stuttgart seemed artificial in comparison.

And the ending, “Höchsten Heiles Wunder! Erlösung dem Erlöser!”, the harmonics, this is an earth-shattering moment, it should bring one to tears with its beauty, its finality. But it was lost. Perhaps in part because the knights were all dead, but this still left the female chorus, yet all of this felt truncated and unclear, all the way to the last notes, which sounded unsure and lacking in certainty.

Flamethrowers! I’d seen this in the trailer for Die Singende Stadt and thought, who the fuck would put a flamethrower on stage? and how did he get away with it? Especially with Klingsor wielding it like a two-handed battleaxe. And dirt and grime and mess and blood. And testicles. (I thought they were fake, some kind of horrific goiter swimming in blood, as most of the cast were afflicted with ruinous weeping sores on face and head, but it turns out not.) And smoke too.

It’s not until the end of the third act, where Parsifal, now returned as the redeemer, leads the grail ceremony (which is preceded by slaughtering Titural in an iron bathtub with an axe passed around to each knight for a hack or two), and heals Amfortas’ wound by shoving the spear through his ribs, that the sarcasm and blasphemy of Calixto is made unavoidably clear.

This brings up the question of how Calixto engages with Wagner. Visually, he follows the dramatic path and action of the libretto closely, and in one respect there is nothing especially radical about the staging. There is a grail, a spear, the ceremony in the third act, all as Wagner had written. That they are a gang of LSD-fueled apocalypticarians and Parsifal might have more in common Frank from the Wasp Factory, nonetheless doesn’t alter this.

Under this perhaps, lies Calixto’s engagement with Wagner proper, he of the erotic, almost orgiastic on one side, and the one seeking redemption in a chaste religion on the other. Whereas Roméo regarded Wagner from a specifically intellectual perspective here, engaging with Neitzsche, Calixto seems to do similar but almost loutishly mocking him.

As with Roméo, he celebrates the music, but also as with Roméo is not uncritical of whence it springs.Not bothering with obvious philosophical references, he simply piles religious icons one on top of another, pointing to the confusion within the libretto (and in Wagner by adding his bust to the idols hanging from Parsifal’s gown). It was in the third act this mockery became clear, and perhaps if I’d seen the whole work with this in mind from the beginning, I’d think of it differently.

As it was, until the final act, I found at times an incessant busyness, a lack of pause to think upon what was taking place. Whereas Roméo used the profile of Neitzsche and the snake to pass the first act’s overture, before plunging us into darkness, from which emerged a single source of light, Calixto had the desolate highway overpass seething with action even before the first note.

It’s admittedly a difference of aesthetics, and perhaps if I’d seen only this version I wouldn’t be saying this, but even so, I felt the need for a pause at times from this, which didn’t come. And while Roméo’s performers struggled with doing nothing, and the sloughing off of performance artifice this entails, Calixto’s seemed to at times be unaware that performing chaos and mayhem doesn’t always mean chaos and mayhem. Dasniya here remarked that having dancers involved would have helped in providing a corporeal attitude that wasn’t simply one of performing-anarchy.

Which may sound like I didn’t enjoy it all, or thought it was weak. Not So! I feel very fortunate to have seen two exceptional productions in as many months, either of them alone would have given me an inspiration for theatre I’ve been missing. I think it also would have been a remarkable work to have been involved in, one of those where you come away feeling this is what theatre should be.

And to finish with Andrew. From the asceticism of Roméo to Calixto’s bacchanalia, he really belongs in such theatre as this (even when performing the most miraculous undressing in which he reveals absolutely … nothing!). Besides a voice which can drive a nail into the gods, he is believable — all the more terrifying when his face is awash with a mad smile.


michelangelo antonioni

Blowup was one of those films that changed how I look at cinema, and then how I imagined performance. Early in my life in Melbourne after discovering him through a flatmate who adored L’Avventura, I spent a week in the library watching as many of his films as I could find. I bought and read books on him and when I was in China, to discover his films on DVD was a special treat. I still have yet to see his documentary on China during the Cultural Revolution, Chung Kuo – Cina. It seems to be a year of deaths of people who have deeply affected me.

先锋光芒 – ray of the avante garde

Guangzhou’s 广州中华影城 Zhonghua Cinema is running a festival of recent Chinese films, 先锋光芒–中国青年导演电影展映(柏林篇)Ray of the Avante Garde – Chinese Young Film Director’s Festival, from December 26th till January 3rd. Most if not all the films have been available on DVD for some time, but for many it’s the first time they will have been screened in a theatre in their original 35mm format. EastSouthWestNorth translated Director 张元 Zhang Yuan’s blog post on his film 《妈妈》 Mama being selected to open the festival.

The Black and White/Colour film Mama was my debut as a director, finished around my graduation days from the Beijing Film Academy, I was 25 then. A few days ago on December 22, a restored digital copy of Mama made its first-ever public screening in Zhonghua Cinema of Guangzhou. It was chosen as the opening film of a film festival sonorously titled “Ray of the Avant-Garde” by the organizers. It means a lot to me that Southern Metropolis Daily, 21cn and Sensei Cui Qiao helped getting this film a public screening at this moment. The first person that introduced the film to the west is the veteran Hong Kong film critic Shu Kei, he’s also a good director, with films like Soul (Lao Niang Gou Sao) and Queer Story (Jilao Sishi) on his portfolio. I would never forget his help. We are not close to each other by then, but after watching a VHS copy of Mama, he recommended the film to the director of Nante Festival des Trois Continents, who immediately sent me an invitation, and the film entered the competition section. I still remember how Mr. Wong Kar-wai helped stuffing the heavy film reels into his luggage, carefully brought them abroad for me. Only with these people’s help was Mama able to tour the world, getting screened on nearly one hundred film festivals, sometimes as film in competition. In fact, the same copy has been played so many times that it has drastically deteriorated. Thanks to all the friends who have supported me. It’s precisely because of all those western screening that I was able to get grants and fund from various foundations in France, Italy, Switzerland, Japan and Netherlands, which enabled me to realize several more movies afterwards, I would like to express my appreciation to them too.


sixth generation film

Wang Xiaoshuai’s Beijing Bicycle was a bit of an underground hit a couple of years ago – not that I ever got around to seeing it. Pretty slack, I know. Lately he’s been schlepping around Cannes where he picked up the Jury Prize for his latest, Shanghai Dreams. Along with a bunch of other filmmakers, he is part of the ‘Sixth Generation’ of directors. A bit like Wen Jiabao is part of the ‘Fourth Generation’ of party rulers. Or something. Unlike the fifth generation, who produced odious pieces of trash like Raise the Red Lantern, loved by naive foreigners the world over who dug the romanticised and inscrutable world of Emperors and footbinding, this new mob like to get dirty, and are the gritty realists. Or were. I’m off to buy the lot for 6 kuai from my local govt-approved pirate video store.

The “Sixth Generation” is the title given to a group of Chinese directors who graduated from the Beijing Film Academy and Central Drama Institute in the late 1980s and 1990s. They include Wang Xiaoshuai, Lou Ye, Lu Xuechang, Zhang Yuan, Guan Hu, Li Xin and Jia Zhangke.

The directors’ focus on contemporary society and striking personal style distinguishes them from the Fifth Generation, led by Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, and had made them “underground.” Last year, however, their films started to rise onto the ground from “underground.”

“The move is the result of every side’s hope,” said Li Xun, a researcher with the Film Art Research Center of China, “The directors wish for the recognition of the society and home audience, the government also showed its welcome and the audience hope to watch their works in cinemas.”Some of the Sixth Generation’s movies — “Beijing Bicycle” by Wang Xiaoshuai; “Xiao Wu,” “Platform” and “Unknown Pleasures” by Jia Zhangke; “Suzhou River” by Lou Ye; “East Palace, West Palace” and “Beijing Bastards” by Zhang Yuan — circulate among a small cluster of people by DVD/VCD and Internet.

— People’s Daily

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陳果 – 三更二之一: 餃子 Fruit Chan – Dumplings

陳果 Fruit Chan’s latest movie, 餃子 Dumplings has just opened in Hong Kong, one third of a horror series Three Extremes starring Miriam Yeung and Tony Leung Ka-fai.

Dumplings tells the story of an ageing woman (Miriam Yeung), afraid of losing her husband (Tony Leung Ka-fai) who seeks the help of a mysterious woman (Bai Ling) who makes mysterious dumplings to restore youth. “It’s the subject matter that’s extreme,” begins the director. Dumplings poses a not-so-beautiful question involving the importance of being beautiful. “The subject of beauty is very popular now, especially among women and girls. Everywhere you look, all over the Hong Kong media, you see ads telling you how to make yourself beautiful, look younger, lose weight. The ideal is to become one empty human being. Some countries don’t have enough food, yet in Hong Kong people don’t want to eat!”