Press Reviews of Stiller

Süddeutsche Zeitung - 10 June 2013

A Biography in Plaster

Tina Lanik stages Max Frisch’s novel STILLER at Munich’s Residenztheater and, with the help of the Handspring Puppet Company, brings it to graphically to life.  By Egbert Tholl

During the course of his artistic creativity, Alberto Giacometti eliminated colours completely. He was not merely a sculptor, a creator of spindly figures that contained an affecting amount of life, painful, painstaking life. He was also a painter, and in the course of time he replaced nearly every single colour with a grey tone, bright grey, dark grey, stone grey, like the rocks in Bergells, the Swiss valley where he lived and worked. A few years before his death, he painted his mother in his studio: a grey yet lively and attentive figure, sunk into herself, sitting in a room that is only suggested by a mesh of brushstrokes, dark grey on paler grey. Giacometti once said that his pictures were more colourful to him then if he had painted them with “‘proper colours’, as others would say.” Giacometti simply saw things differently to others, and so it is with Stiller, the character from Max Frisch’s novel, who refuses to accept a reality that does not suit him simply because others maintain that it’s true.  And it is all about STILLER: Tina Lanik has staged the novel for the Residenztheater in Munich. 

The space on the stage of the Cuvilliéstheater looks as if Giacometti had been at work in the theatre. But he has not, that was Stefan Hageneier. The space consists of three sections that can be divided by partitions that are brought down from overhead. Sometimes you can see through these partitions, sometimes they divide the individual cells off, dependent on the lighting. When everything is open, the whole space seems rejuvenated. Each section is a smaller version of the one in front, each has two openings, left and right, and a lightbulb hangs from the ceiling with a flat shade. Black stripes across the wall, like rubber-marks, dirty and slightly irregular lines on a grey background. In fact nearly everything is grey here, the space and the suits, the figures and the three sleeping pallets of varying sizes, the largest is at the front, the smallest in the furthest cell. At the end of the play, the lighting turns the whole space diaphanous - the square-shaped tunnel is not longer hermetically-sealed, the outside world, even if that is only the rest of the Cuvilliés stage, appears through the now-transparent walls. Stiller’s closed world is broken open.

In her previous directorial outings for the Residenztheater, Tina Lanik tended towards caution, was detached. Now she has gathered in artistic assistance and created a wonderful evening. The assistance is in the form of the Handspring Puppet Company, founded in 1981 in Cape Town, and for many years now one of the most important magicians within puppet theatre. This is the first collaboration with a German theatre and delivers in fact much more than just the puppets. Mervyn Millar from the company, Lanik and the dramaturg Andreas Karlaganis created a text that does not begin with the famous line “I am not Stiller,” but immediately with one of Stiller’s quirky stories in the prison where he is incarcerated because he maintains that he is James White, something only the prison warden Knobel believes, and that only because he’s mad about Stiller’s Munchhausen stories. 

The adaptation leaps about through the novel, which itself is told diachronically in fictional protocols, diary entries and free-wheeling stories. The play text is composed in such a feisty fashion and never leaves the firm base of Stiller’s (probable) biography around which everything revolves, either invented by Stiller or what or the others know to tell about him. Amongst all this, the puppets are as far from accessories to the plot as the room is mere decoration. Everything is imperative in this production: it brings the novel to life on the stage with the greatest vitality possible. Nothing more, but does one really need interpretation, a position, when that which one is watching is so extraordinarily multi-facetted?

The puppets are Giacometti’s fantasies come to life; haggard figures made of plaster, grey, with joints in their arms and – should they have them – legs. One is unscathed, Stiller’s alter ego, most of them stop at the hip. Some have faces, some just bright surfaces. The female puppets wear skirts, the Stiller puppet is naked plaster, but full of life. Up to four actors are required to manipulate each puppet and to allow it to become partner to the actors. Many realities are conjured with a playful effortlessness, all at the same time, thanks to the three sections of the space, parallel and yet asynchronous. A mesh of perception and assertion, fascinatingly iridescent. Again and again the actors appear from behind the puppets and become tangibly Knobel (Robert Joseph Bartl), the defending lawyer (Thomas Gräβle) and the prosecutor (Oliver Nägele) or the two women in Stiller’s life. Julka, the dancer who appears as the ballerina-puppet dancing to enchanting music-box music, is played by Sibylle Canonica. Sibylle, the mistress, is played by Barbara Melzl in apricot (a colour!) and a little hat. The actors learned to manipulate the puppets during long workshops until it came easy, some of them, like Katrin Röver, blossom as a speaker of the material brought to life. 

One of them is ‘only’ an actor, August Zirner, He plays Stiller as morose and superior, doubtful and escapist, an ego maniac without anchor. Zirner’s performance is as wonderfully imponderable as the network of the puppet performers surrounding him. One has to decide for oneself, what is true. And that’s not the only thing that makes for a great evening. 

Translated by Penny Black

Münchner Merkur - 10 June 2013

Silent Souls of the Past

A clever and magical stage adaptation of Max Frisch’s novel Stiller in Munich’s Cuvilliéstheater

It is very rare that an adaptation of a film or novel is purposeful for the stage. This is because an adaptation rarely offers a new perspective on the work. However the stage adaptation of STILLER, that premiered on Saturday at Munich’s Cuvilliéstheater, is the exception. The evening (two and a half hours long with interval), melts together actors and puppets and recounts the story of Max Frisch’s 1954 novel quite differently: it’s hypnotic, floating and light – despite the grey that dominates the eye. 

The production, for which Tina Lanik is responsible for directing the actors, is the first co-production with a German theatre for the Handspring Puppet Company. The company was founded in 1981 in Cape Town and is now renowned worldwide. The story of Stiller (who claims he is James White) an adventurer and murderer, is told in an interplay of performers and larger-than-life, grey, stylised puppets. The book is rewarding and ideal material for this kind of dramatisation: “the simultaneity of a life lived and a life longed-for, the dialectic between deed and dream that only represent the reality of a person when told together, this is what guided the composition of this novel.” wrote Max Frisch (1911-1991) about the novel STILLER, which he hoped would be his literary breakthrough. 

In the Cuvilliéstheater, it is mainly the puppets that report on the past (whether actual or imagined) of the protagonists, whilst August Zirner, in the role of Stiller, sits in a bare prison cell. This parallelism between then and now allows the audience to intuit how this man became what he is today. Stefan Hageneier’s stage design supports this by means of a simple yet fascinating idea: the space becomes ever-narrower towards the back and can be divided by screens. In each third, a light bulb glows sadly from the ceiling. And so the different levels of the story are separated in terms of space, and yet still interleave. 

This clever concepts gives structure to the evening. This is important, as the actors have a difficult task: Mervyn Millar, Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler from the Handspring Puppet Company are not working with professional puppeteers. They held workshops with performers from the Residenztheater to familiarise them with their art, so that it is the performers themselves who manipulate the puppets, which are reminiscent of the Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966). As a rule, it requires three people to bring a silent colleague to life.

And this happens in an extraordinarily natural manner. What’s more: the actors seem to breathe life into the puppets, to transfer feelings and thoughts into the figures. At the premier, these demands sometimes meant that text-comprehension and some movement suffered – but this will resolve itself with practice. Far more important was the creation of almost dreamlike images.

The material, which in Frisch’s hands is treated as crime (is White actually Stiller, or not?) is approached here in a much more poetic manner. That makes the evening a magical one. The Stiller puppet, constantly on stage with August Zirner, symbolises the protagonist’s past and is fighting for its right to exist: after all, this man cannot hide from his own life – whether it is leaving his own fatally-ill wife alone in the clinic or his mistress to face an abortion. Heartfelt applause for both actors – and puppets. 

Translated by Penny Black


Die Welt Kompakt - 10 June 2013

Puppet Theatre

At the STILLER premiere: huge puppets take on the main roles alongside the actors.

Life-sizes puppets alongside real actors – this was the unusual constellation placed on the stage of Munich’s Residenztheater last Saturday evening for the premiere of STILLER. The idea: key figures from Max Frisch’s famous novel exist twice – as performers, but also as puppets manipulated by actors in grey suits, thus creating a tense interplay of identities,  a second level of story-telling. 

STILLER is the first co-production between the Residenztheater and the renowned Handspring Puppet Company from Cape Town in South Africa. The company was set up in 1981 and has been working with puppets since then, with artistic directors Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler at the helm. 

In the Cuvilliéstheater, August Zirner plays a secretive man who vehemently denies that he is the man Stiller, who is being sought by the police. He maintains that he is a Mr White. Nevertheless he is hassled from all sides to give his true identity. His wife Julika (Sibylle Canonica) is besieging him, the state prosecutor Rolf (Oliver Nägele) is constantly in his ear, and even his defence lawyer Bohnenblust (Thomas Gräβle) is not giving him an easy ride. Yet all they get to hear is “I am not Stiller.” The more that White denies it, the stronger they come back at him.

The game with the puppets underscores this dancing around identity, which Frisch also placed at the heart of his novel. Two personalities combine – sometimes Zirner is the real White/Stiller, sometimes it’s his puppet, given voice and movement by different actors. Nor are their sentiments always synchronised. Maybe one says aloud what the other is thinking. The next time one of the pair is a spectator observing himself, so to speak. And occasionally the events are as if in a dream. Other characters too gain a second identity by means of a puppet, such as the ballet dancer Julika, who suffers from TB, and Stiller’s mistress Sibylle. 

The play is hard work for the performers. They slide along on their knees in order to move the feet forward step by step. Or they lead the arms and the head, in order to carry out small gestures and barely-noticeable nods. They worked on the play with director, Tina Lanik, and the puppet director, Mervyn Millar, in workshops, this is also how the appearance of the stark figures came into being, whose long and stretched bodies are reminiscent of the sculptures of Alberto Giacometti. They seem desolate, like colourless plaster casts of the real world, or like souls. Like unreal beings made of thought and memory. Or disturbing and ghostly, like the dead. 

And yet again and again when the actors start moving their legs, arms, hands, bodies and heads, the plaster-grey beings come to life. Suddenly Stiller looks deep into the eyes of Julika. Or two beings embrace each other delicately in a dance. The effect is not of stiff puppets, it is real and touching, poetic. You soon forget that their faces are empty – at least until they are carried from the stage as lifeless props, awaiting their next deployment.

Translated by Penny Black