Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz
October 19, 2017
*Because I am writing my dissertation about Milo Rau (and I am more than a little overly thorough/slightly obsessive/highly enthusiastic), I engaged in extensive research in preparation for LENIN and have included a few pages of this research underneath the post
*Please also note there is so much more that could be said about this production
“Every beginning is difficult, holds in all sciences.” –Karl Marx
In Milo Rau’s new production LENIN, at Berlin’s Schaubühne, Rau, his team at the IIPM [International Institute of Political Murder], and the Schaubühne Ensemble explore one of history’s most controversial figures: Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Lenin. LENIN, as is the case in many of Rau’s productions, works to represent the unrepresentable. The figure of Lenin is completely intertwined and inseparable from his political theory and the subsequent hundred years after the
1917 Revolution: the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, the Cold War, and the demonization of Communism. Lenin is an icon, a plasticine idol sleeping in a crystal crypt. With hundreds of biographies and thousands of analyses written about Lenin, his image has been used and reused to serve the political and ideological purposes of both communism and capitalism. Yet the real Lenin, separate from the interpretation of his work and politics – the man who was according to sources shockingly uncharismatic and underwhelming normal – is notably absent from the clashing historical representations of Lenin. On one level the production engages with this complicated historiography, asking: Who is Lenin?A monster? An enemy of democracy? A hero? A mass murderer? An intellectual? A man of the common people?
“During the life of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander. After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonize them, so say, and to hallow their names to a certain extent for the ‘consolation’ of the oppressed class and with the object of duping the latter, while at the same time robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarizing it.” – Lenin, The State and Revolution (1917)
The Palimpsestic Iconography of a Revolution:
LENIN breaks apart the icon that is Vladimir Lenin – the man whose image was placed alongside Marx and Engels, and whose likeness decorated businesses across the Soviet Union. Instead of looking at the heroic agitator and revolutionary, the production looks at a frail, ageing, dying, post-stroke Lenin hidden away from the Soviet people and the world in his Gorki villa.
The Kammerspiele structure of LENIN breaks up the production into four acts: morning, afternoon, evening, and night. This final day in Lenin’s life illustrates the construction of the Lenin-icon. This transformation from man to icon is mirrored in actor Ursina Lardi’s transformation into Lenin. The choice cast a woman in the role of Lenin has several fascinating implications such as the sexualisation of the figure and adds to the illustration of Stalin’s lust for power in actor Damir Avdic’s interactions with Lardi – cumulating in a passionate kiss. It also allows for an extreme transformation into Lenin. Lardi begins the production with long blond hair and modern clothing – quasi-out of costume – but with the steady addition of costume and makeup throughout, the eventual addition of a bald cap and Lenin’s moustache and beard, Lardi becomes the easily recognizable iconic image of Lenin.
The other actors also continue to add to their costumes, adding wigs and makeup – becoming more and more the historical figures (Lunacharsky, Krupskaya , Stalin, Trotsky, and Lenin’s household staff). As the historical figures become increasingly concrete and outwardly identifiable, the documentary realism established in “Morning” (the first act) becomes gradually surreal and dreamlike as the play progresses – like the memory of a stroke victim, which blurs and runs together, confusing itself.
When Lardi resembles Lenin the most in “Night”, Lenin is the least himself. Lardi no longer speaks clearly or moves easily. Rather, the words slur with the difficulty of someone who has had a stroke and Lenin is unable to move by his own volition, but
is carried and forced into the wheelchair he so bitterly rejected in the first act. Lenin has been reduced, his control lost. Overtaken by his own iconography, he becomes a picture alongside Marx and Engels, his voice is now weak and distorted by illness and age. His theories, his stark critique of his comrades, and the overwhelming awareness of the failings of his revolutionary ideals catch in his throat and his power is overtaken. Lenin is rewritten by the imposing figure of Stalin.
The revolution has failed.
A Choreography of Stage and Screen:
One of the most striking features of the production is the stunning visual dramaturgy and careful choreography between cinematography and onstage action. The production plays with an extreme level of intermediality and intertextuality, a live film unfolding simultaneously on stage and screen. The steady movement from documentary naturalistic realism to surrealist horror – a powerful man trapped
within both a body and political mechanism he can no longer control. His image – his face, his hair, his beard – becomes synonymous with the misappropriated ideals of a failed revolution in a rotting, corrupt system. The shift in language (German to Russian), music (the increased distortion of Bach), and color (from color film to black and white) all indicate a movement away from the realism established in the “Morning” into the dark surrealist atmosphere of “Night”. What began as hope has shifted towards a darker future.
Anton Lukas’ truly stunning stage design – a replica of Lenin’s villa on a revolving stage – creates a self-contained, closed off world, isolating Lardi’s Lenin from the outside. Parts of the villa are inaccessible to the audience, meaning certain spaces are only visible via the livestream from the two onstage cameras (manned by the two hardest working cameramen in the German theatre). One of the greatest strengths of the production is the seemingly seamless choreography between camera and actor: the effortless transitions between cameras (fades to black using dimly lit areas of the stage, movement from actors to set, and the steady camerawork of the cameramen), the brilliant use of sound throughout to highlight and compliment the visuals, and the contained, understated but simultaneously absolute fullness of the acting.
This filmic aesthetic carries throughout the performance, with an opening sequence introducing the actors and production crew and closing with end credits as the actors take their bows. Rau’s careful direction and the hard work of the entire team create what could exist solely as either a theatre performance or film, but together produce something truly exceptional. The dance between these two elements defies description, in no small part because just I don’t have the vocabulary to describe it. LENIN, on a performative and cinematic level, is a seamless, effortless visual triumph. Dark, contained, pessimistic, and beautiful.
Was tun? – What is to be done?
Throughout Milo Rau’s theatre, the past reverberates into the present. “The revolution is dying,” Trotsky (Felix Römer) asserts, “don’t you see that?” LENIN describes a starving and dying nation, its old hierarchy replaced by a new even more ruthless regime. The once young, idealistic revolutionaries have become greedy, old men and the lofty ideals of the revolution are dead and replaced by a new hierarchy. Lenin has been reduced to likeness next to Marx and Engels in a painting, his theory “robbed of its substance”. The image of a time and hope past. The revolution failed to create any real change – people are still starving and the wealth is still in the hands of the few.
How it is, Rau asserts, is not sustainable and it is cannot remain. We are also heading towards a disaster; collapse is inevitable if we – and this statement is directed to Schaubühne audience – do not change. “What is happening?” asks Lenin. “I don’t know,” replies Krupskaya and, with a fittingly beautiful cruelty, Leonard Cohen’s Who by Fire (derived from the Hebrew prayer sung on the Day of Atonement) brings LENIN to a close as the fates of the revolutionaries is revealed and the credits roll – the revolution turned and devoured itself.
“In a revolution, as in a novel, the most difficult part to invent is the end.” –Alexis de Tocqueville
LENIN is a beautiful piece of theatre and not to be missed. It is a pessimistic, but powerful ending and demands action from its audience. However, the audience is offered a refuge in the curtain-call. It is an exceptionally strong piece of theatre and I would have loved to see it break with the German curtain-call tradition, because this moment allows the audience to excuse themselves from the piece’s socio-political implications and wash their hands of their own – our own – failure.
That said, LENIN is the first act of a much larger project by Rau and the IIPM. Whereas LENIN offers a pessimistic view on the revolution, the forthcoming General Assembly (November 3-5, 2017) will look to provide a concrete example of how change is possible, because “so wie es ist, kann es nicht bleiben” (“As it is, it cannot remain”). Perhaps this moment of catharsis in LENIN is acceptable, as it is during the next act is when the real work begins.
Stay tuned for more on General Assembly in November…
“History is not like some individual person, which uses men to achieve its ends. History is nothing but the actions of men in pursuit of their ends.” –Marx
Creative Team: Milo Rau (Director); Anton Luka and Silvie Naunheim (Stage and Costume Design); Kevin Graber (Video); Stefan Bläske, Florian Borchmeyer, Nils Haarmann (Dramaturgy); Gleb J. Albert (Research); Erich Schneider (Light)
Schaubühne Ensemble: Ursina Lardi (Lenin), Nina Kurzendorf (Krupskaja), Felix Römer (Trotsky), Damir Avdic (Stalin), Ulrich Hoppe (Lunacharsky), Kay Bartholomäus Schulze (Guetier), Lukas Turtur (Pakaln), Iris Becher (Koschkina), Kondrad Singer (Sapogow), Veronika Bachfischer (Shabat)
 Anatoly Lunacharsky (1875-1933), Soviet People’s Commissar of Education (responsible for education and culture)
 Nadezhda Krupskaya (1869-1939), Lenin’s wife and deputy minister of education
“I want to burn with the spirit of times. I want all servants of the stage to recognize their lofty destiny. […] Yes, the theatre can play an enormous part in the transformation of the whole of existence.”
– Vsevold Meyerhold