Live Theatre Review: Purity and laser-like focus for Pierrot Lunaire at Komische Oper

In these uncertain Corona times, you don’t have many opportunities to actually witness live theatre performances inside a venue. So I was very happy, writes Sabine ‘Bee’ Koch, to get a ticket for Pierrot Lunaire at the Komische Oper in Berlin.

Categorized as three monodramas – two spoken word only, one with accompanying music – Not I [1972] and Rockaby [1981] by Samuel Beckett and Melodrama Op. 21 [1912] by Arnold Schoenberg.

The texts by Samuel Beckett are performed on a bare stage and in the case of the first text, NICHT ICH (Not I) one only sees the mouth of the performer, highlighted with red lipstick, the rest, together with the surrounding skin, is absolute darkness – a blackness like a hole drawing you in, swallowing you up.

The second text, ROCKABY, sees the outstanding Dagmar Manzel, a long-standing muse to artistic director Barrie Kosky, rocking in a chair in front of a black curtain, dressed in black and every once in a while exclaiming “Mehr” (more) whenever the voice of herself stops reciting memories in a loop with just minor alterations.

The third part features five musicians who perform Arnold Schönberg’s 1912 atonal composition PIERROT LUNAIRE together with Mrs Manzel made up as a small boy. The stage opens up and we can now see all of it empty but for a white child’s bed and a small teddy bear, that get dragged to the front of the stage.

The reduction of the set design throws you back to basics – the text, the music, the voice. And for these three monodramas it is the perfect setting, no frills, no distractions, just purity and laser-like focus.

While the texts where written in English and French (Albert Giraud’s poems for Pierrott Lunaire), these translations showcase the absolute beauty of the German language, when spoken by a person, who is in full command of the content, the structure, the emotions and the general feeling – in short, every nuance.

The rhythm, the pauses, the extension and shortening of vowels and sounds take on a life of their own. It is highly musical even in the words-only segments. And in the last part of the performance the voice of Dagmar Manzel literally becomes part of the ensemble, a precise instrument that enters a dialogue with the other musicians on the very same level, bending and stretching the words to fit in with the sounds.

Of course it is a real shame, that the audience is so limited due to the pandemic. The stalls where a sea of red, where fancy cloth prohibited seating in most chairs. I was a bit worried, that these few people would not be able to give out the all important vibes a performer needs to feed off. But I shouldn’t have doubted the Berliners. The ones in attendance were treated to a very special evening with a very special performer. You could feel how, they appreciated the evening, the artists and what they saw. In the end the applause was heartfelt and rapturous, so Dagmar Manzel had every reason to be emotional. Unfortunately for foreigners there is no in-seat translation system available this time, so one will have to immerse oneself in the sounds without understanding a word. But still I highly recommend checking it out to anyone.