Edinburgh Fringe 2009
Ritter, Dene, Voss
Ragged Shoes Productions
Venue: Universal Arts @ St George’s West
Festival: Edinburgh Fringe
Ritter, Dene, Voss presents a challenge to both performers and audience members. It is a convoluted and difficult plot, lightly sketched and played more for character than for story, and is by a largely cult playwright (outside of German-speaking countries). The effort required to create and perform this piece, as well as for the audience to be interested in something not at all part of the regular canon, belies the huge amount of effort required to get this production performed at the Fringe. Beyond that, this particular production shows surprising acuity in its portrayal, transforming Bernhard’s writing from obtuse post-modernism into accessible and very enjoyable theatre.
The plays of Thomas Bernhard are not known for their accessibility, nor for being performed frequently. While Bernhard’s work is popular and respected in the German-speaking world, his popularity the world over has been limited at best. It’s especially exciting, therefore, to see a piece by Bernhard being performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and receiving accolades, not only for this particular production, but also for the piece itself. Bernhard’s work is notoriously dense, more often than not boiling down to an overlong tirade for or against loneliness, and Ritter, Dene, Voss is no exception. To give an example of Bernhard’s obtuseness: the title is the names of the three actors who first performed the piece, which is given little explanation.
It is, therefore, exciting to see this piece given verve, life and character, as it could easily sink into a very stereotypical German production of the piece: dark, dour and depressing. Instead, this version sees the actors dance all over the stage, engaging easily with a strikingly beautiful set, and giving their characters invigorating youth, as well as channel the actors they are meant to be, dispelling in one fell swoop the idea that post-modern German theatre needs to be such a ‘dark’ affair.
The actors are what make this piece, being as it is so focused on character over plot. Each actor portrays their character with an inspiring pizzaz for so dark a script, leaping around in excellently physicalised harmony. Their roles in the plot are largely unimportant, it is their excess of character that makes each figure so inspired, and each actor willingly fills their role with as much energy as they can muster. Interestingly, they also seem to channel the actors Ilse Ritter, Kirsten Dene and Gert Voss that the piece is named after, although this may be a trick of the script rather than research. Nonetheless, it is an inspiring performance from the whole cast, and one that certainly demands hard work.
Of particular note as well is the excellently realised set. Each aspect of the set is, somehow, correct: anything too detailed or complicated is wrapped in grey wrapping paper, pictures are represented by swirling, hanging text in frames, items are drawn onto the clock and table, the table is a wedge shape, heightening a foreshortening effect… The effect is perfect, trapping the audience in the play’s strange world of realism and unrealism, encouraging the feeling of age and repression hidden behind every piece of grey paper; an exquisitely well-designed backdrop for the piece.
While the play is notorious difficult, this production of Ritter, Dene, Voss does its absolute best to keep the script and performance light, which, in many ways, makes the swinging back and forth between mad movement and discussion less turgid. However, this bouncing back and forth actually made the plot harder to follow, and often meant that more time seemed to have been spent on characters and set, and not enough on actual comprehension. Nonetheless, this is a very well-realised production of an Austrian classic, a success for the actors and the production team, if in need of a sense of direction.