DEAD AT LAST, NO MORE AIR – Camden People’s Theatre, London.
With Dead at Last, No More Air Just a Must – a Theatre company focussing on so-called post-dramatic works – presents an English language premiere. The play is also only the second play by Werner Schwab ever performed in the UK. Just a Must and director Vanda Butkovic take on the immensely brave task of putting on this thought-provoking and difficult play on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of Werner Schwab’s death.
Werner Schwab, who died from an alcohol overdose in 1994 aged 35, was a prominent figure in the Austrian and German theatre scene, and his plays were hugely successful. Living and working in Graz, he was part of a vital tradition of avant-garde theatre and literature. Figures like Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelinek or members of the infamous Vienna group had reintroduced Dadaist practices and a playful and critical approach to language to the Austrian post-war cultural scene. Schwab’s artistic output has to be understood in this context. Dead at Last, No More Air is heavily influenced by the Austrian tradition and by European postmodernist, poststructuralist thought. The production at Camden People’s Theatre convincingly stages Schwab’s play. In order to alleviate the impact of this complex and hermetic work, the audience is provided with the translated text along with a well-researched and enlightening introduction into Schwab’s world by dramaturg Diana Damian Martin.
The challenges the creative team faces with their decision to stage this play are enormous: the demanding original language, full of neologisms, which almost seems un-translatable; the task of not only translating from the German, but also from the specific Austrian cultural framework which is apparent in many allusions; the avant-garde background of the play that draws on Antonin Artaud’s ‘theatre of cruelty’, which so easily risks to estrange the British public; the bleak, brutal and obscene character of the text and its pessimistic outlook on human sexuality, morals and the art world; and not least the fact that the play sets out to destroy the institution of theatre itself, is – according to Schwab – a “theatre-extinction-comedy”.
These challenges are proficiently met by the director, cast and the production team. The actors do a remarkable job in dealing with Schwab’s absurdist dialogues which are often mere clouds of words, signifying nothing. They very well put across Schwab’s attempt to show mankind with all its egotistical and violent pursuits, to uncover the hideousness and perversity of the human existence. The production finds a balance between the typically Austrian parts of the play, for instance by keeping the German names, and the aspects which are universal and work in English. The destructive ethos of Schwab’s work is particularly strong in the instances when the actors address the audience directly, for example in Mühlstein theatrical blast: “I hate the public. The public is the death of theatre.”
This production also meets the challenges of the text by dint of its imaginative use of props, which, integrated into the plot, effectively convey the narrative on an additional level. Inflatable mattresses are used in a plethora of ways. The clever stage lighting emphasises the different levels of the play-within-the-play, and creates a dark and nightmarish atmosphere. Whigs are used to indicate the changing roles of the actors, and a bizarre inflatable Austrian dress gives the production a surrealist twist.
Dead at Last, No More Air is a grotesque exploration of sadism, violence and the loss of meaning and language. This production succeeds in alienating and repelling the viewer with this bizarre chamber of horrors – which presumably is exactly what Schwab intended to do. Staging this play alone merits praise. In so doing the creative team achieves to transfers one of the playwright’s aims to our present day: the questioning and challenging of the contemporary performance culture and its politics.
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By Isabel Wagner
6th – 17th May 2014
Camden People’s Theatre, London NW1.