at the Tbilisi International Theatre Festival. By Michael WIERSING SUDAU
To say it straightaway: I have not read the book. However, this applies to over 90 % of the Georgian population, as the book has not been published in Georgian translation yet - Nino Haratishvili migrated to Germany when she was 13 years old and writes in German. The release of the book in Georgian language is planed to happen soon, but so far just one chapter was introduced to the general public in spring this year. Given that the book - which was, if you look at the subject it treats, a great success in Germany and apparently continuous to be - is over 700 pages long, it is clear that the rendering for the stage-production can merely consist of a selection of episodes and treats the whole story rather superficially.
As we all know, there are differences between books and adaption for the stage. Ignorant of the book itself, I will not argue that the book was better (or less good than the stage production). All I can do is judge from the theatre play. Given this, the (more than a) life-spanning account of a Tbilisi family can be compared to "100 años de soledad" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1967) or "Die Buddenbrooks" by Thomas Mann, first published in 1901. Both of them highly successful, praised by critics of literature, and for most of the time highly entertaining. Both are, nevertheless, from my point of view rather failed examples for telling the complete stories of a clan of people, as those only survive from page to page thanks to an abundance of improbable situations and improbable coincidences, all of which are quite probable in their own way, but put there one after another unrealistic. This is what Germans call "dick aufgetragen".
The same seems to apply to "The Eight Life". On top of this, there is a clear obsession with sex, death and violence, or at least this is what results from the episodes selected from the book by those who prepared the show. Sex and violence is being seen in most of the things. There is hardly any positive, ordinary life to be admired on stage, and the majority of characters are shown as acting either (growingly or from the beginning onwards) hideously and malicious or as suffering from severe depression, disorders of all kinds, resulting in suicides, etc. That all - the extreme - is fantastic material, no doubt, for a spectacular show, however this is what it turns out to be, (merely) a show, but not an account of a family's life telling the history of this country. Obviously, there is no obligation to tell the story of the Georgians and the author can do whatever she wants. But at least for the stage production it seems that history is many times seen just as the vehicle for providing us with a continuous flow of violent, theatrical, emotional outbursts.
For the ordinary spectators with a less turbulent biography this makes it hard to identify with the characters on stage. The performance rarely touches emotionally, but, still, all of those spectacular human crashing go well with most of the public. The impression the spectator gets, that of witnessing a great account of the personal life of so many characters interwoven with national history is certainly very satisfying. It seems, however, to me that there exists not only a misunderstanding of what the spectator gets from this performance, but that this is primarily a failed approach to the adaption of the book by the authors of the stage production - Julia Lochte, Emilia Lind Heinrich and the director of the play, Jette Steckel:
Whereas Nino Haratishvili is - for obvious reasons - close to the subject, even if she migrated many years ago, the authors of the stage production are not. For them this is a book they wanted to turn into a stage production for a well-known "avant-garde" theatre in a big city of a million (Hamburg). This production needs to sell well, especially regarding the efforts put into it, and it can not rely on a merry story with an orchestra playing and an operetta being staged. Therefore it needs to search for other ways to fill the empty big stage. So the full range of theatre effects are being used to transport the story, making full use of video projections, artistically created "cool" despising-mocking German language - many times not fitting the characters - several songs in English, etc. If the play would have been adapted for a much smaller stage, surely the contents would have been more intimate, more personal, more adequate. But this way it is a show clearly marketed for the German theatre market, and for show in big theatres abroad, pretending to have understood the history of Georgia, communism and the Soviet Union, when obviously it sacrifices most - by keeping some - of the possibilities for understanding history. This might make the show become entertaining, but ultimately boring. There are differences between what the stage production's authors really know and understand, real history and the desire/ need to put on a big stage performance that impresses both audience and theatre critics. "The Eight life" is pretending to be more than it offers.
As the performance begins in Tbilisi's most beautiful theatre 30 minutes late - with members of the audience arriving one hour after the original scheduled beginning - for quite some time it is hard to get the audience concentrated on what is happening on stage. Spectators continue to regularly check and answer messages on their smart phones while the play is performed, some few of them even leaving the venue for answering calls. Although this continuous to be the case until the end of the performance, it even though becomes less from the moment on where the forced abortion scene is shown. There the audience is fully gripped for the first time. When the play features the post-war period, in particular the 1970s with a spark of freshness and youth-culture - even if this is portrayed by video footage of the Communist Party's youth organisation singing on a bus - finally smart-phones are used for filming sequences of what is shown on stage. Probably this is a sign of recognition that the show as such works.
When the performance was finally over - after another boring 20 minutes, in which nothing useful was added anymore - at 0.34 a.m. many spectators will have had the impression that clearly they accomplished an important mission by holding out so long. In the case of random spectators in both Georgia and Germany, with only an average knowledge of history - which always tends to be small - one things applies: it will be hardly possible for them to understand, what is shown on stage and talked about. Those spectators will watch, but it is questionable if they understand who the Georgian legion was, for instance. It is valid that the play demonstrates - by giving the account of the young film director - that terror was not over with the death of Stalin, but that repressions continued in many drastic ways during the Brezhnev era.
But just like for most of the performances in the frame of the Tbilisi Theatre Festival it would have been highly appropriate to offer a full introduction to the performance to the audience, including information about historical facts, the characters in the play, etc. in a separate meeting prior to the performance. The fact that this did not happen means to accept that the audience does not fully understand or understands things wrongly, believing everything to be historically authentic more or less.
Michael WIERSING SUDAU,
Accredited journalist at the Tbilisi
International Theatre Festival