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In Praise of The Catalysts of Thought: The Free Theatre's 'Faust Chroma'

by Dr Creon 06 April 2008

This week the University of Canterbury will release the final implementation plan for "changes" to its College of Arts -- after a review panel has spent three and a half weeks considering some three hundred submissions on the original Change Proposal. As you may know, the most disturbing aspects of this proposal were plans to disestablish Theatre and Film Studies, as well as this country's only American Studies programme. So a good number of students, academics and general staff around the University are nervously awaiting this week's announcement.

Coinciding with that announcement, down at the Dunedin Fringe Festival, the Christchurch Free Theatre will be performing Faust Chroma, their stunning interpretation of the drama by German writer and film maker, Werner Fritsch.

The connection? Well, the Free Theatre is intimately involved with Theatre and Film Studies at Canterbury: for over 25 years it has basically been the ongoing research project of creative director and academic, Peter Falkenberg, providing rigorous, intelligent, and modern alternatives to the usual Shakespeare-in-the-park-type theatrical offerings. Run on a shoe-string, largely by way of Falkenberg's research grants, Free Theatre productions involve both staff and students from Theatre and Film Studies: everyone on stage at the Mary Hopewell Theatre on Tuesday night will understand that the next day's announcement will impact massively on their employment and/or creative futures.

I only hope that this invigorates their performances.

I've seen Faust Chroma twice in Christchurch over the past week, and I'm emphatically recommending it. Of course there are numerous great offerings at the Fringe Festival, and no-one can get to everything; but I'm encouraging people to go along to Faust Chroma not simply out of sentiment or do-goodishness. I'm encouraging people to go along because it stimulates and entertains; because it's sensual, relevant and rich; because it's damn good theatre.

The setting is the death-bed of Gustaf Gründgens (Ryan Reynolds), German actor and director, famous for his productions of Goethe's Faust and for his performances as Faust's antagonist Mephistopheles. In the figure of Gründgens, playwright Fritsch has identified one of those bit-players in history whose overdetermined biographies bristle with ethical implications. Bisexual or gay, Gründgens was nonetheless made (by Hermann Göring) head of state-run theatres in Nazi Germany, thus making a Faustian pact of his own and providing thereby the central conceit of this play.

Most of the action on stage constitutes representations or interpretations of the dying dreams or hallucinations of Gründgens, shot through with imagination and memory: this is not a didactic play, and it eschews the simplistic, linear narrative that is commonly in the service of equally simplistic moralising. It is in a sense episodic, but the power of the episodes lies in their manifesting as no more than forms for the expression of thoughts, emotions, history, and conflict -- in a creative coalescence of movement and speech.

Important touchstones in this are the decadent coalescences that we associate with the Nazi mind, where seemingly incompatible elements of an amorphous transcendent sublime are forcibly fused: art and the state; repression and the erotic; sadism and sentimentalism; discipline and obsession; abstraction and the concrete; and of course that defining irony within all public manipulation, including that of the theatre -- performance and authenticity.

(Such mutually discomforting dualisms operate at the heart of any zeitgeist I suspect: in Western democracy, for example, we witness a narrative of human rights entwined with a privileging of the unencumbered mobility of capital, while in fact it is the latter that underwrites the massive global inequalities that render the former little more than an ideological farce.)

Perhaps it was an awareness of these dualisms that inspired Falkenberg to introduce a new character into Fritsch's play: the God/Pianist figure around whom the action takes place and through whose musical creations the Devil (Marian McCurdy & Sophie Lee) seems to manipulate proceedings. God is played by the sculptor and musician, Chris Reddington, who recently joined Theatre and Film Studies as their theatre designer. He created the outstandingly efficient set, but he also put together a fantastic score, and his increasingly dissipated playing throughout the performance is alone worth the ticket price.

This music, along with Emma Johnston's amazing singing, underlines the clear rhythm and shape of the play, which, in the absence of narrative, is defined by a progression of moods.

A further addition that the Free Theatre makes to Fritsch's script is Hermann Göring (George Parker) rising from the dead to condemn the theatre as "faddy". This directly references University of Canterbury Vice-Chancellor, Professor Roy Sharp, who was quoted in the Christchurch Press using the same term to devalue courses offered in Theatre and Film and American Studies.

Leaving aside the multiply-outrageous nature of Sharp's claim, the reference in the play directs us to what is arguably its central concern for audiences in Aotearoa New Zealand in 2008. I'm referring to the unease and conflict that surround accusations of, say, "fascism" within the context of this country. By focusing on the ambiguous moral situations of minor and not-so-minor historical figures from Nazi Germany -- who are depicted as shifting between caricature, entrapment, and denial -- Faust Chroma highlights what is actually at issue when we are inclined to decry authoritarian actions or attitudes as fascist: frustrated protest at our own sense of helpless complicity within patently unacceptable, yet seemingly inexorable, progressions of history. Seen in this way, such accusations are not belittling insults to the victims of Nazism, but are symptoms of our distress at the failures of ourselves and our world.

This was the distress that Barack Obama (while staying conveniently on-message) tapped into with his "A More Perfect Union" speech. It was great rhetoric because it spoke to the very real anxiety and self-loathing that attends individuals' inabilities to emulate Hollywood models of pure righteousness, pure self-determination, pure humanism.

And Obama was right: the only way through this impasse is by addressing it with thoughtfulness and imagination.

Capitalism (influenced, I hate to say, by science and technology) believes in another false coalescence -- between creative intelligence and measurable utility (reducible, ultimately, to capital itself). The absurdity of this should be obvious -- so when the institutions that are charged with fostering and supporting creative thought make their own Faustian pacts with conservatism and mediocrity, we should all be concerned. The Free Theatre's Faust Chroma at once explores, symbolises and embodies what is at stake.

The Free Theatre's Faust Chroma plays at the Mary Hopewell Theatre, Dunedin from Monday 7th April to Thursday 10th April, 8 pm.

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