At Schaubühne, Milo Rau contemplates the Russian Revolution through Lenin’s dying days.
Lenin’s last years, sequestered in a dacha in Gorki, suffering stroke after stroke, seem to embody the dying potential of a Marxist state primed for Stalin’s rise, and it is exactly this period that Swiss director Milo Rau zooms in on for Lenin, which premiered at the Schaubühne on October 18. Rau, however, takes license with history and also invites Trotsky, Stalin, and literary revolutionary Anatoly Lunacharsky to join the conversation.
Rau traces his fascination with Lenin to age 13, when he did a grade-school presentation on Trotsky’s The Young Lenin. And although he says he no longer romanticises the Soviet revolutionary – knowing too many details for him to remain “bearable” as an iconic figure – vestiges of this early infatuation imbue Lenin with a weirdly bittersweet longing. It may well have informed, subconsciously or otherwise, Rau’s decision to cast a woman, Ursina Lardi, to play the titular character, and to have her perform the first half of the play with her gender unconcealed instead of disguised in bearded drag. Lardi’s Lenin, frail, gaunt at times, is also eroticised, not least in those moments when Trotsky or Stalin caresses or kisses her.
Early on, Lardi’s Lenin lies, exhausted, in bed; the personal physician unceremoniously pokes and prods him, pulling off Lardi’s pants to insert a rectal thermometer before summoning help in stripping Lardi completely naked. Neither plot nor anything else demands this, and it seems to be a metaphorical statement for what Rau and his cast are willing to do: denude the legend, treat nothing as sacred. Lenin certainly doesn’t shy away from its protagonist’s arrogance and hostility. Still, the strongest moments are those that recall what it was that enabled Lenin to inspire multitudes – especially the penultimate scene in which Lardi, by now in full Lenin costume, stands on a veranda and delivers a rousing speech based on one the real leader delivered in 1918. Passionately intellectual, without ironic gestures to undercut the moment, it’s one of the most stirring scenes of the evening.
Lenin also avails itself of that hoariest of German Regietheater clichés, the use of live video to show scenes staged behind a part of the set – but it works, because here, it actually amplifies the emotional and intellectual content of the play. On a turntable at centre stage, Rau has constructed a small “dacha” for actors to inhabit, trailed constantly by two camera operators. The lighting, dim from the outset, grows steadily dimmer, making the actors’ images on video often appear floating, isolated, in darkness. For the final scene, the video has a black-and-white newsreel quality, before switching over to the Hollywood-style music and credits that were also used to open the performance. The effect is one of nostalgia and elegy mixed with a cold distance from the subject – a distance bred of time and media, mythologising and mythbusting, and the ultimate inscrutability of historic souls.
Lenin Nov 4-5, 16-19 (in German) | Schaubühne, Wilmersdorf