The piccolo teatro Haventheater in the city of Bremerhaven on the North Sea is one of the smallest theatres in Germany. Founded 10 years ago go as Boulevard Theatre with a maximum of 56 seats, and successful as such, it has as had a new owner and director for a short while now, Daniel Meyer-Dinkgräfe, who taught for decades in Wales and England as a theatre researcher. His decision to swap theory for practice is admirable not only because of the shift of levels that make such developments difficult, but because it is of strategic importance for theatre work outside of the structures of municipal theatre. To open his first season with The Persians by Aeschylus in a production directed by Heinz-Uwe Haus is a clear aesthetic pointer for the future of the piccolo.
Aeschylus’s tragedy, first staged in 472 BCE, is the oldest occidental play we know. It is also the most topical and unsurpassed in its concern of celebrating the human ability of intuition. The play is a report, a lament about the misery of war. The report is about the dreadful endeavour of the Persian King Xerxes to subdue Greece and Athens through a war of destruction to revenge the defeat of his father at Marathon. But at Salamis he instead loses the sea battle. A Greek ruse leads to his downfall. Hardly one of his followers survives, his huge army sinks in the floods, boundless warriors are washed up on the shore. Aeschylus, who participated in this war himself, allows his Athens audience, eight years after the victory against the criminal conqueror, to experience the ignominy of their deathly enemies. He wants to harness them against numerous errors of the victor: pride, schadenfreude, arrogance, and hubris. Most of all, however, he mobilises the right questions at the right time: Despotism or democracy? Dictatorship or referendum? Freedom or subjugation? It becomes clear what was at stake in the battle of Salamis
Aeschylus presents the inanity of any war, which brings people never anything apart from dread, despair, death and sadness, from the perspective of the completely beaten Persians under Xerxes, without arrogantly rising above their opponents’ defeat. He does neither glorify the victor nor does he defame the loser. He accuses the latent inhumanity of wars. Every line warns: do not bring yourselves into the position that your enemies are in. Everything leads to one point: eternally incomprehensible suffering. “Never before did so many people die during one day in such a short period of time” is what the messenger reports to his mistress, Atossa, the King’s mother. In her golden dress she listens to this this horrible report as if it did not affect her.
Haus masterfully stages this primordial tragedy although there’s hardly any infrastructure available at this small theatre. With the simplest of means, a white cloth, he integrates more than half of the auditorium, so that the audience is placed right in the middle of the events. The costumes and props carry social gestus and quote foreign “Persian” distance. Two sheets of white cloth, each 2.80 x 8 metres, are the main elements of the production, which very quickly allow the association of place, mood and events. Images and situations are created that are memorable: the sea battle and the sinking of the ships, the calm river of the Nile, the bridge covering the Hellespont, the murderous acts of the invaders, the happy games played in the sandbox during childhood. The music of the Greek composer Michalis Christodoulides, too, stimulates the imagination, often with hypnotic rhythms. What we experience is an incredibly intense work. From it grows a level of energy in the actors’ portraiture that is rarely achieved. It grabs the audience physically. One has not seen such enthusiasm for choric work for a long time. Such a wonderful unison of the chorus! The unique confluence of language, scene, rhythm, sound and physical feeling is the result of the way this director works. It is based on collective imagination and unconditional collaboration. The virtuoso quintet of actors achieves, in the performance that lasts 65 minutes, a genuinely compelling consolidation of the events.
Britta Werksnis (Atossa), Andreas Brendel (Xerxes), David Gundlach (Messenger) und Daniel Meyer-Dinkgräfe (Darios) are the exceptionally creative ensemble which represents the chorus and the protagonists equally brilliantly. They all implement the great language (in Dietrich Ebener’s translation, which is conducive to the medium of the theatre) impressively. This company is complemented by Darius’s voice from the grave, which has been recorded in ancient Greek by Cypriot actor Neophytos Neophytpou.
It is impossible to escape the captivating power of language of this chorus– sometimes it coalesces into a single sensual awe. Rising choral songs lamenting against doom and corruptors, and reports of the horrors of war represent an exercise that carries a strong impact of pull. Emotions rise all the way to catharsis. Haus, experienced in dealing with both ancient and expressionist texts, often creates alienating ways of speaking, gaps, breaks. The audience can bring their own thoughts and feelings into those gaps.
To summarise: the production is of uncompromising clarity and beauty. It completely trusts the art of acting and the collaboration of a mature audience. It tells of the painful striving for honesty. The audience experiences how belief in the power of reason arises from the tragedy in the process of radically following, becoming and dissolving. Such a theatre does not allow any distraction, it is relentless, “and full of hope for the evolutionary energies of history” (Haus). Light, brilliantly clear, of the highest energy, and full of trust in ” big feelings and stories that carry powerful images” (Haus). Everything in this production serves the words of Aeschylus, which reverberate for a long time: the gods love those who are humbly free and bring perdition to sinful tyrants.
Appropriately, much cheering at the end.