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Melbourne Festival

Total Masala Slammer

Philipa Rothfield

If Umberto Eco is right, there is no way that we can say “I love you,” without cultural overload. How then to address Goethe’s landmark of German romanticism, the novel The Sorrows of Young Werther? Poor Werther falls in love with a young woman who ultimately rejects him. How could this be when, on their first meeting, she quotes a poet whom he also admires? Having burst into tears at this sign of their mutual destiny, Werther is literary witness to his emotional deterioration.

There are countless adaptations of ill-fated, romantic tragedy. When Peter Brook decided to mount Bizet’s opera, Carmen, he claimed that it was a layered work consisting of 2 stories: one he considered central, the other a manifestation of Bizet’s social milieu. Brook chose to pare away the Parisian narrative to make theatre with the underlying drama. Belgian director Michael Laub went the other way with Total Masala Slammer. Apparently fond of playing with multiple genres (musical, soap opera, theatre, dance) and inspired by the ballads of Bollywood, Laub added complex Indian cultural dimensions to this project.

The cocktail called the Alabama slammer is spoken of in different American accents. There is disagreement about its ingredients, some of which are not grown locally. It’s a nice metaphor for the hybrid mixture of elements in Total Masala Slammer which draws on both Western and Indian traditions to render the Goethe text. Versions of the tale are read, sung or suggested. Other versions of other tales are also played out, for example, much of the Indian dance performed classically refers to elements of the epic, Mahabharata.

Players sit on chairs and benches and watch their fellow performers, while a video screen signals and translates the use of narrative. The many short pieces include: reading and singing from Goethe’s text in English and German; a series of Classical Indian dances performed by men or women, largely Kathak in style, to live tabla music; Indian singing to pre-recorded music; a soloist in a red sequinned dress using voice and movement; a trio of “modern” dancers performing phrase material; and 2 Indian actors ironically acting out love scenes between an ardent suitor and an uninterested starlet. Both actors refer to scripts: “We’ll make love like foreigners.”

According to Christiane Kühl’s program notes, Taub’s guiding principle is that “depth comes about purely through chance.” As chance would have it, the juxtaposition of myriad styles and traditions is no recipe for success. While the Indian dancing is exquisite, the first half is a bit like channel surfing. In the second half the Indian and Western teams mix it up more, creating an interesting focus, especially in the performers’ ability to adopt the styles of other traditions.

Laub is purportedly interested in the slim line between fiction and realism. If not pure fiction, there is little sense of the real here either. Moments perhaps: a woman in a zippered sari imitates Bollywood accents on her Walkman, casually reading from a dog-eared copy of Goethe; or videotapes from auditions conducted in India. The back wall is covered with layers of coloured silk. Each layer successively falls, finally revealing a bare wall.

Young Werther’s moment has come. Women run across the stage in and out of period costume. A Hawaiian-Indian dream sequence wafts from left to right. The pistol is pulled out. But no, one of the Indian dancers models Werther’s period dress on an imaginary catwalk. Death is deferred. In fact, I can’t even remember whether he shot himself. I suppose he did. That’s bad isn’t it? Is that because I have seen too much death on TV? Or is it because Total Masala Slammer is always outside Werther’s tragedy? Eco might be right that the expression of love is hackneyed but is love also hackneyed? And what of tragedy?

Total Masala Slammer was pretty much critically slammed in Melbourne. I can see why. Taking a punt on the concept that depth is created from chance is risky, especially when cross-cultural elements are added. In a way Michael Laub’s right though. It’s not possible to control the creation of stunning theatre, theatre that rents the fabric of fiction. Unfortunately, the groundwork didn’t seem to be there. Was it the structure, cultural dichotomies, the rehearsal process? Or perhaps Laub didn’t want to touch us, but rather to stay within the irony of a work he subtitled Heartbreak no.5.

Total Masala Slammer, Remote Control Productions, Hebbel-Theatre, Berlin, directed by Michael Laub, Indian crew led by Kumudini Lakhia & Sunayana Hazarilal; State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Oct 31-Nov 2

RealTime issue #52 Dec-Jan 2002 pg. 7

© Philipa Rothfield; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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