Being a woman is dirty work; so suggests the Berliner Ensemble’s Happening when, halfway through the production, three actresses smear themselves with mud and thrash about on the soil-strewn floor.
Director Laura Linnenbaum’s play, an adaptation of Annie Ernaux’s 2000 autobiographical novel about her illegal abortion in 1964, is, like the book, a powerful lament of culture’s failure to depict abortion. The book seeks to rectify this oversight – and this theatrical version does further this work but fails to advance beyond the original novel.
The three women onstage all represent Ernaux, their interlocking performances communicating a commonality of experience among what she describes as the “myriad women” in her situation. Staged as a three-way monologue, Happening cultivates a communal dynamic among its actresses, which provides cheerful moments despite the grimness of the play’s subject; the women sing, dance and whistle, situating young Ernaux in a sisterhood of women who have dealt with unwanted pregnancy.
However, the performance suffers when it comes to adequately representing the abortion at its centre. Fits of dirt laden frenzy channel the fear, frustration, and humiliation over the unwanted pregnancy—and of not gaining access to a helpful “abortion fairy.”
Compared to these moments of raw release, the abortion itself feels oddly muted, rendered in a stylised manner that fails to translate Ernaux’s unadorned prose into theatrical experience; suddenly, the subject matter is approached with respect bordering on timidness.
Despite this lost opportunity, the production as a whole stands before us as a fine and unashamedly political piece of theatre—one that not only recalls the past but also hopes to change the present. As actress Nina Bruns reminds us, in one of the play’s few departures from Ernaux’s text: Germany still retains its antiquated abortion law. ★★★★
- Happening, July 5. Berliner Ensemble. In German with English subtitles.