Two things happened at Saturday’s presentation of 120 Tage von Sodom at the Volksbühne.
One: As an audience member got up to leave after about half an hour, he turned to the stage and yelled to the performers. This, he said, was social criticism reduced to Stammtischniveau – to the level of a barroom debate. A few actors blew him kisses. Several audience members applauded.
Two: After the curtain call, while still in the auditorium, a couple audience members got involved in an angry spat. I don’t know what prompted it – neither did the couple next to me – but I nearly expected a post-show rumble on Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz.
These events were surprising on their own. While Berlin audiences are often demonstrative, these outbursts were particularly fiery. But they were also noteworthy because they bristled with more tension than just about anything that had happened on stage in the previous 90 minutes.
Which would be disappointing under most circumstances, but particularly at a show that’s been slapped with an age restriction: “Not appropriate for viewers under 18,” warn signs in the lobby. The reasons quickly become clear. Austrian director Johann Kresnik – a warhorse of the dance-theatre world who’s been nicknamed “Der Berserker” for loud productions containing a lot of blasphemous imagery – has taken on the novel The 120 Days of Sodom, written by the Marquis de Sade while he was imprisoned in the Bastille. Kresnik has also drawn from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s grim and graphic 1975 film of the same name.
As in those works, we’ve got a group of corrupt libertines who enact sadistic fantasies and perversions on young sex slaves. For the 75-year-old Kresnik, that means enough nudity and stage blood to tide audiences over for the rest of 2015. More precisely: cannibalism, copulation, crap-eating, and castration of Christ on the cross (followed by consumption of his cojones as communion).
And it’s all in the name of making a statement against capitalism and consumerism. (I’ll take a break from the alliteration now.) As blood-and-grime covered performers writhe about naked, and a zombie conga line in dirty rags dances to “Gangnam Style,” and an infant is ripped out of its mother’s belly, hacked apart and cooked on a real grill, there’s a lot of screaming about Konsumfaschismus, Facebook and banking. Politics, we’re told, is just one big supermarket. That metaphor gets driven home by the gobsmacking set. Designed by Gottfried Helnwein – known for his photographs of bloodied children – it’s a floor-to-ceiling supermarket display of brightly colored boxes, cans and bottles. Some are marked Coca-Cola and Frosties; others are for Prozac, drones and Goldman-Sachs. It’s a chromatic marvel, and probably the best thing about the production.
But if Kresnik is actually interested in making a cogent argument, he doesn’t show it. Rather than shocking, the onstage brutality feels silly, as superficial as the consumer culture it’s attempting to critique. (Even the naked henchmen painted black from head-to-toe – because apparently blackfacing alone isn’t enough – feels gross rather than consequential.) The dialogue is a collection of empty slogans. Or is that the point? To attack frivolousness with frivolousness? To beat Konsumfaschismus at its own game? If so, then Kresnik should give us more of the neon wigs and music-video dance moves of the first five minutes, because those moments had verve to spare.
120 Tage von Sodom, June 2, 6, 21, 19:30 | Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, Linienstr. 227, U-Bhf Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz