A Clavigo full of hot air

I love Goethe. Goethe is the reason I learned German. That doesn’t mean his texts are sacred. (No texts are sacred.) But it does mean that I bought tickets to Clavigo at the Salzburg Festival because I was excited to see a very rarely performed Goethe play. I saw a press release that the main roles had been gender-swapped and got even more excited. I saw the dreaded byline ‘nach Goethe’ (‘nach’ implies ‘inspired by,’ in contrast to the more straight forward ‘von’ or ‘by’) but still held out hope. My hope was sadly misplaced.

© Salzburger Festspiele / Arno Declair
© Salzburger Festspiele / Arno Declair

Goethe’s play is a tale of competing ambition and love. Clavigo is an up-and-coming Spanish writer. In his younger and poorer days, he fell in love with and became engaged to the charming but sickly Marie. However, when his star started to rise, his friends convinced him that Marie would hold his career back. At best, she’d be a distraction; at worst, she’d prevent an advantageous marriage. So he broke the engagement. Marie’s brother Beaumarchais (yes, the French playwright—this is loosely based on real events) has come to Spain to confront Clavigo. He exorts a (potentially career-killing) written confession of wrongdoing from Clavigo but promises not to have it published until Clavigo can ask Marie for pardon and renew their engagement. Clavigo successfully does this, but his friends (and his own feelings) convince him that this was a mistake and begin criminal proceedings against Beaumarchais. Marie, upon hearing of this, dies. Clavigo (who has not heard the news) stumbles upon her funeral procession and is distraught. Beaumarchais fatally stabs Clavigo, and Clavigo accepts his death as atonement for his crime.

© Salzburger Festspiele / Arno Declair
© Salzburger Festspiele / Arno Declair

In theory, this plot is wonderfully ripe for gender mix-ups. It’s so obviously gendered in its original context. (“The poor woman is forever dishonored by the broken engagement! Woe is her!”) But the essential conflict of career ambitions versus romance and Clavigo’s uncertain, ambiguous feeling towards Marie feel very modern and equally applicable to both genders. (In fact, the career-versus-family debate usually focuses on women.) Unfortunately, director Stephan Kimmig doesn’t bring any of this out. He swaps the main characters’ genders… and does nothing with it. He apparently gets distracted by having far too much else happen as well.

© Salzburger Festspiele / Arno Declair
© Salzburger Festspiele / Arno Declair

Much of that “too much else” makes very little sense. The cast arrives onstage with clown noses and tutus, making odd noises that combine into a sort of music. Bizarre fashion choices and sound effects become a mainstay of the production, with nearly every person’s first solo entrance involving irritating grunting or singing or gibberish. (The use of delayed playback to layer each actor’s voice is cool, though.) Between the scenes, video projections of Clavigo with Marie show the past and future of their relationship. Actors sometimes walk onstage to deliver monologues that do not come from the script. Carlos (Clavigo’s friend) talks to us about fame. Around the midpoint of the play, we get a lecture on world hunger and hope. These interludes are interesting and dramatic in their own right, but they destory the dramatic pacing and continuity of the play as a whole. There are plausible, pseudo-profound explanations for all of Kimmig’s choices, but it’s too much at once. It’s as though he couldn’t decide what Clavigo is about and tried to stage every possible interpretation simultaneously, making all of them fall flat.

© Salzburger Festspiele / Arno Declair
© Salzburger Festspiele / Arno Declair

Kimmig also over-relies on a technique I usually love: live video feeds of the actors. Clavigo’s confession (video-taped rather than written, in this production) is reproduced in giant size on the curtain behind her. We see encounters that take place inside the sideways hot air balloon (the set) projected on the outside of the balloon. Much of the end of the play happens in a dressing room backstage, and Marie’s death (implied to be suicide by asphyxiation) is undramatically indicated when he uses lipstick to write ‘tot’ (‘dead’) next to his image in the dressing-room mirror. There’s no clear denouement after this. Marie reappears in the basket of the now-upright balloon, and Clavigo tries to climb into the basket with him in spite of her monstrously large hoop skirt. This can be read as a symbolic nod to the play’s original ending. But it lacks the same clarity or effect.

© Salzburger Festspiele / Arno Declair
© Salzburger Festspiele / Arno Declair

It’s important to note that the failures of directing are just that. All five actors are marvellously dedicated to the weird show they’ve ended up in. They give it all their energy and talent, unabashedly shouting gibberish, dramatically delivering unnecessary speeches, and rocking horribly unflattering outfits. It’s not enough to save the show, but it keeps it from being an unequivocal disaster. (It’s certainly what kept me from walking out, although not everyone agreed. A steady stream of people left the theater over the course of the play.)

The ‘boo’s and ‘bravo’s duked it out in the curtain call, especially when the production team made their appearance. I’m not sure what some people were cheering so loudly; I’m with the ‘boo’s on this one.

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