The author certainly ain’t dead, this much Houellebecq proves. The divisive French literary sensation’s persona looms invasively over any stage adaptation of his work. It’s fitting then that Bulgarian director Ivan Panteleev begins his performance of Whatever at the Deutsches Theater with a stony (in both senses of the word), larger-than-life replica of the author’s head on stage. Challenging Houellebecq’s polarising 1994 debut novel about a depressed computer programmer who goes on a business trip to the provinces is certainly justified. Its misogynist and racist outlook hasn’t exactly matured over time and its essential point of capitalist competition having conquered the sexual realm reads like a bitter post on an incel forum. Panteleev clearly isn’t celebrating Houellebecq here, but his critique is half-hearted and unscathing. He attempts to undermine the text by weaving in the SCUM manifesto and unflattering Houellebecq interviews but in the course of just over two hours, these brief episodes feel few and far between. A strength of Panteleev’s production is undeniably its weirdness, its surreal elements, which communicate the ridiculousness of the novel, yet these often teeter on being too farcical, while the fragmentary nature of the novel feels jittery and incohesive on stage. The Houellebecq culture industry may be booming and this production can certainly capitalise on that. But whether it’s worth granting so much attention to an over-discussed novel that has little left to say is a question unconvincingly answered by Panteleev.
Whatever (Ausweitung der Kampfzone) | Directed by Ivan Panteleev, Sep 26, Oct 2, 13, 29 (with English surtitles), Deutsches Theater, Mitte