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Longing for the royal drama

When Rainald Goetz published "Johann Holtrop" in 2012, this great social novel was itself a retrospective.

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Longing for the royal drama

When Rainald Goetz published "Johann Holtrop" in 2012, this great social novel was itself a retrospective. Just as Hegel's owl Minerva begins its flight in the twilight, what Goetz called the "demolition of society" took a look inside the Berlin Republic, when it was not only badly shaken but also showed the first signs of dissolution: the real estate crisis, the financial crisis, Economic crisis, debt crisis, euro crisis and so on. Crisis has been ever since. Nothing remains as it was, the demolition continues. Only Goetz made himself rarer and rarer. But suddenly he's back, last week with a performance at the Berlin Wissenschaftskolleg and now in Cologne. Green bomber jacket, red Dussmann bag, you can't miss it.

In "Johann Holtrop" Goetz told the life story of a CEO of Deutschland AG, clearly based on Bertelsmann manager Thomas Middelhoff, who was later convicted of breach of trust. It took more than ten years for the novel to find its way onto the theater stage. Now the Cologne theater – in co-production with the Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus – can boast a Goetz premiere.

As with the Goetz play “Realm of Death” at the same venue almost two years ago, the director himself was the director, who will soon be in charge of the Burgtheater in Vienna: Stefan Bachmann. Olaf Altmann designed the stage, Jana Findeklee and Joki Tewes the costumes, Sabina Perry did the choreography and Sven Kaiser did the music – that was also the case with “Realm of Death”. You can also see that on stage, the two productions are very similar at first glance. First signs of a Cologne Goetz aesthetic?

The numerous rubber cords that stretch from bottom to top invite you to freely associate. Everyone is involved here, but who pulls the strings? The skilful use of light creates different spaces on the otherwise almost empty stage, sometimes the shimmer of a fine matrix covers the events, sometimes the struts stand out glaringly like in a prison cell. Not only is everyone entangled here, everyone is trapped here. The actors also act like strings in a puppet theatre, the movements have something mechanical and the language something torn. The melody is given by the circumstances, you have to follow the rattling rhythm of the hard piano attacks of the small band at the edge of the stage.

The characters are imprisoned in a context of delusion and entanglement: society as a marionette theatre. Like the places, whether in the company, on Mallorca or in the Paris bar, the characters - "residual soul ruins" it says in the novel - hardly take shape. Everything is superficial, the emptying and de-reality of the world described by Goetz in the novel becomes an aesthetic principle. A stylization that, with its strong focus on the alienating, creates a great distance even from the viewer. Even Holtrop, played by Melanie Kretschmann – there are only actresses who slip into the numerous roles that evening – is hard to grasp. The downfall of the egoist Johann Holtrop, it's just a side note in the web of the world, in the end he collapses like a puppet whose ropes have been severed.

With his white-blond hair, the depiction of Holtrop makes one think of the author sitting in the audience. No wonder he repeatedly draws parallels between business and art in his novel. In one scene, Holtrop puts a jester's cap on his hair, reminiscent of the painting "Punch" by Martin Kippenberger, which shows Goetz with a mischievous laugh. This portrait of the author as a young man is also reminiscent of the famous final monologue of Shakespeare's Macbeth. what is life “A poor juggler who spends his hour torturing and raving on the stage; then you don't hear him anymore,” the ruler, who thinks he is invincible and yet defeated, reasoned in the ruins of his power.

Holtrop as revenant of Goetz and Macbeth? However, such moments in which the staging breaks through its immanence and opens up to the metaphorical are rare. Thinking of Macbeth in Holtrop also fits because Goetz's longing for the king's drama can be felt. "Realm of Death", which premiered in Hamburg in autumn 2020, was an attempt to overthrow the US government of George Bush Jr. scaled to Shakespearean standards. When Goetz looks into the engine room, he does so from the command bridge. This view may be disturbing and irritating, but it has fewer illusions than the neuro-romantic literature of dismay, which creates its nest of comfort in reality through identification with the victims. Goetz, on the other hand, is maximum discomfort, maximum reality.

If you finally ask yourself the inevitable question of what “Johann Holtrop” can still tell today – and on a theater stage at that – there are two answers. One concerns the material, the distant proximity of the event as a prehistory of our present. In this regard, Goetz calls his novel "maximum present" in the program booklet (which also contains a strange dialogue with ChatGPT about Goetz). The other concerns the choice of perspective, like Shakespeare, not to shy away from describing power and not to choose the detour via “slave morality” and its language. In this regard, one can be especially curious to see what will become of the novel project "The Executioner", which Goetz just mentioned in a short article "Absoluter Idealismus" in the "Zeitschrift für Ideengeschichte". Could it again become the portrait of an epoch at the moment of its disappearance? Until the work is finished, you can look again at the "Johann Holtrop" - or make do with the entertaining Cologne production.

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