Psychological Realism – A precious mistress, but why are we so wed to it?

Originally Published on Arts Professional.

Take a look at the SPILL Festival programme which has just stormed the Barbican and you’ll see a number of exciting British performance artists matching strides with their international counterparts. When it comes to live art British artists are at the forefront of exciting experimental work, constantly moving forward.

But if we trawl our gaze across the theatrical spectrum to the world of acting, a very different type of performance, as a country we still seem to be deeply wedded to the power of psychological realism.

Ever since Constantin Stanislavski created his groundbreaking method British theatre has been in the thrall of this ‘inside out’ approach. By digging deep into the psychology of a character and empathetically placing themselves within these fictional people through emotion memory, the actor was to attain the most natural performance possible. It was a system that was to cross borders and cultural boundaries, infusing the live arts so thoroughly that it is now seen as the status quo.

But nowhere in the world is this Russian as prized as in Britain and America where his hold on actors and directors seems almost ironclad. This was brought home to me once again when reading up on various past productions of Frank Wedekind’s Lulu. Time and again I was struck by how every company and artist seemed obsessed with stripping the layers away from this iconic temptress to reveal the ‘real woman beneath’. As though this was the only way into an accurate rendition of Wedekind’s libido-driven nymph.

I knew that this wasn’t true as last week I had seen the Berliner Ensemble perform Robert Wilson’s version of Lulu in Berlin. Wilson’s epic theatre has long been admired in Europe where both theatres and audiences are more understanding of the kind of expressionist performance this auteur is famous for. Wilson’s style of heightened language and highly choreographed movement encased within an architecturally sharp mise en scene is a deeply unnatural one. Psychological realism it ain’t, but sitting in the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm watching a play in a language I don’t understand, Lulu’s story was told to me through abstract gesture with immense emotional clarity.

Angela Winkler translated her deep psychological understanding of this icon within a doll like external persona. The sensual temptation of a Japanese geisha sang out in her stiffly corseted shuffling wiggle. Winkler walked but not realistically; her ‘naturalism’ was akin to the mannerisms of the 18th Century David Garrick. But within this highly unsexy shuffle Lulu’s famous contradiction of Madonna/whore screamed out at us. Her tinkling laugh was performed with unnatural regularity, her voice too perfectly modulated to be human. It was an oddness that was mirrored every player in the freak show of fathers and lovers that circled and eventually devoured her.

It was an otherworldly performance but Wilson’s abstract direction made sense to me with Lulu’s psychological journey communicated clearly through these externally driven creatures. It reminded me that psychological realism, whilst potent, is not the only successful method of acting, so why are we so stuck on it?


Robert Wilson’s Lulu performed by The Berliner Ensemble

Sat in the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm surrounded by an audience dripping with Berlin cool, it is hard not to feel a shiver of anticipation at the prospect of seeing the Berliner Ensemble performing Robert Wilson’s premier of Frank Wedekind’s Lulu. Oh alright who am I kidding, I and the rest of this cultivated crowd are practically bouncing with excitement. A blinding white stage cloth with LULU neatly typed in the centre teases us with its bald potential; there’s a lot of expectation riding on these four little letters.

Most companies or artists who approach Lulu seem intent on stripping away the layers of this iconic temptress to ‘reveal the real woman underneath’. Not so for Wilson who, if anything, has given more ritual to the sordid tale of Wedekind’s libidodriven nymph. This is classic Wilson, with highly choreographed movement encased within an architecturally sharp mise en scene. It is a world where minimalism mingles happily with melodramatic theatrical campery.

Black Victorian attire drapes our white-faced, wide-eyed cast as they scuttle and shift, shimmer and shake against the stunning white cyclorama. As we go on colour infects this backdrop with violent force, dying the space like ink from a syringe. Black structures create a playground of chairs and stairs for this cast of automated marionettes to devour one another on. In the second act, as the action moves to Paris,  a set of poplar trees and hanging chandeliers is applauded as a piece of art in its own right.

With a look so distinctive there is always a very present danger of typecasting but Wilson’s talent is his ability to constantly surprise. A well placed flash of green communicates lust as well as envy, the sensual temptation of a Japanese geisha sings out in the stiffly corseted Lulu’s shuffling wiggle. In the midst of cool lines and shadow play even the worlds’ sexiest pelvis is paid homage to in I Remember You. In this ensemble number Lulu’s admirers sidestep languidly backwards and forwards within cages in a effortless piece of choreography that positively screams Jailhouse Rock.

It is the marriage between control and debauchery, animalistic wants and coldly clinical needs that defines this Lulu. Angela Winkler (an institution in her own right) embodies this seemingly impossible synergy in one fragile girl/woman. Her tinkling laugh hides a demon’s intent to get what she wants but her eyes shine with the destructive desperation of a fallen angel.

Whilst it is Winkler’s soul we see on stage, Lou Reed gives her a powerful voice to express it with dirty but heartbreaking songs that lace through this piece like veins through a body. Reed’s melodies are as potently unfussy as Wilson’s imagery but his lyrics bring a visceral spit to the mouths of these smooth dolllike figures.

Like a wellmoisturised hand slipping into a silken glove, Wilson’s epic theatricality sits beautifully in the hallowed halls of the Berliner Ensemble. Bertolt Brecht, in typically contradictory style, would surely delight in Wilson’s very own take on Verfremdungseffekt even in this bourgeois incarnation; each luscious Gestus is a potent challenge to an equally polished audience.

For all Brecht’s belly-aching about emotionless theatre, it was his pieces that encompassed both the cerebral and emotive that packed the biggest punch, and so it is here. Wilson’s cerebral design both tempts its audience and holds it firmly at arms length (much like it’s coquettish star), but Lulu is also deeply engaging.

The final number is astonishing to look at with floating green heads surrounding an eerie David Bowie-esque Albino murderer and comprises a spine tingling choral vocal (led by the glorious Anke Engelsmann, whose Nico vocal is uncanny). But most importantly it transcends the sum of its sleek parts. Wilson has used the resplendent stage play, rich dressing and Reed’s delicately wrenching music to maximum effect. In doing so he has side stepped any critics of a style over substance barb, creating a deeply disturbing and powerful piece of psychological drama that hits the audience just where it hurts, right in the gut.