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Marthaler produces sombre review of a century

The Basel Theatre has staged an eagerly-awaited first performance of the latest project by the theatre producer Christoph Marthaler.

The Basel Theatre has staged an eagerly-awaited first performance of the latest project by the theatre producer Christoph Marthaler.

"20th Century Blues" invites the audience to put together in their mind the music of some of the great composers of the 20th century with abstract evocations of the contradictory moods that the period created.

The production, Marthaler’s second in Basel since the much acclaimed Opera project "The Unanswered Question" three years ago, falls between all genres. "20th Century Blues" is part musical collage, part dance, and part theatrical farce, but the combination adds to the sombre reflections it manages to evoke.

The musical pieces, which are played in a lucid performance by the Basel Symphony Orchestra under Jürg Henneberger, are almost exclusively held in minor scales, and are drawn from the work of early 20th century romanticists such as Stravinsky, Mahler and Berg, with some Shostakovich thrown in.

The sopranist Rosemary Hardy and the tenor Christoph Homberger excel in their very difficult and sometimes physically excrutiating parts. The one departure from modern classics is the jazzy song „20th Century Blues“ by the British entertainer Noël Coward, which reappears throughout the show, and is wonderfully performed in bluesy variations by the Scottish actor and performer Graham Valentine.

The dark mood emanating from the orchstral pit is echoed by the visuals. The set is the emptied exhibition room of a museum, with only white spots on the wall where pictures should belong.

The six characters on stage (three singers and actors, and as many dancers) also convey a sense of emptiness, their individuality having been reduced - to brutality at times, also to sexless nudity. They are generally speechless, or suffering from autistic problems.

In looking back upon a century in which ideas have been discredited by the violence they created, Marthaler succeeds in evoking salient episodes and calamities with the sparest of gestures.

Bodies move as if tortured, then dance in ecstasy, or are heaped upon each other like in a death camp. The tragic borders on the comic: Actors run around making car noises, the stage floor suddenly breaks as if it was thin ice, and just before the final curtain comes down, Marthaler crowds the stage with identical twins, an outlook to the next century no less gloomy than his review of the last.

Marthaler’s "20th Century Blues" achieves what all avantgarde art tries to do - it makes the audience think. But it is special in that it uses abstract visuals and modern music, thereby multiplying the thoughts that flash through one’s mind.

Marthaler, the excellent cast, and the Basel Symphony were applauded by an enthusiastic audience in Basel. The critics, too, hailed "20th Century Blues" as a cultural event of this spring. Marthaler, meanwhile, will shortly move to Zurich where he has been appointed director of the main theatre, the Schauspielhaus.

by Markus Häfliger


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