Image © Lupi Spuma

A searing and original production of Camus’ absurdist drama, tackling notions of alienation and isolation

Theater-goers, rejoice! One of Vienna’s eminent theatrical institutions, the Volkstheater, is now bringing Austrian theater to an international audience. The first fruits of this endeavor can be seen in the The Misunderstanding, an extraordinary meld of puppetry and theater. Penned by Albert Camus in 1943 during the German occupation of France, and directed by 2012 Nestroy Prize winner Nikolaus Habjan, The Misunderstanding, says the program, grapples with “themes of belonging and exile, with all the weight and force of a Greek tragedy.”

As the play opens, a man returns home after twenty years, to find that his mother and sister no longer know him. He resolves to stay on in their cold and unwelcoming guesthouse without disclosing his identity, to get to know the people they have become, and thus descends into a series of increasingly tragic misunderstandings.

Camus, however, deflected accusations of absurdity: “When the tragedy is done, it would be incorrect to think that this play argues for submission to fate. On the contrary,” writes biographer Oliver Todd, “it is a play of revolt, perhaps even containing a moral of sincerity.” It is this particular insight that drives Habjan’s interpretation.

Originally written and first performed in occupied France, Albert Camus once referred to The Misunderstanding as “the play that describes me the most.”

A drama of such potency would be nothing without the performances – and on this front, Habjan and his fellow performers Seyneb Saleh and Florian Köhler rise magnificently to the occasion. Combining acting, puppetry and masks, they prove themselves masters of their art. There is an especially choice moment toward the beginning where Florian Köhler (as the returned son) arrives at the guesthouse, sits down, opens his suitcase, and pulls out a puppet of himself – and it is exactly here that the theatricality of actor and puppet transcends itself. Compounding the artifice has precisely the opposite effect: reality is heightened further still.

The set, designed by Jakob Brossmann, is intrinsic to the performance. Depicting the bleak, isolated guesthouse as well as its cramped, lopsided interiors, it creates a superbly distorted sense of scale and location, seen through multiple lenses.

The puppets themselves – built by Habjan – are a marvel, their craggy, expressive faces etched deep by the weight of their purported lives. There is both subtlety and depth to their expressions, each tiny gesture loaded with nuance as actor and puppet become one – mesmerizingly so. When the play comes to its dramatic staggering close, with complete and utter dissolution, we are part of an experience only possible through the medium of theater.

This production marks the first time the Volkstheater has employed English supertitles – more commonly a staple of the opera – to actively court an international audience.

The initial impetus was the Fest für Angekommene (Celebration for the Arrived), in response to the waves of refugees fleeing devastation and war. It is a deeply fitting play for the occasion, given that – in Camus’ own words – it “wears the colors of exile.”

Under the banner of “Theater without (language-) borders,” Stefania Schenk Vitale (of Wortschatz Produktion) fashioned a translation that had to fulfill a number of different (and at times contradictory) criteria – capturing both meaning and poetry in a brief space, while addressing both native speakers and those with English as a second or third language, a wide span of age-groups and reading speeds.

The Volkstheater hopes the supertitles will become standard, and that The Misunderstanding will be only the first of many – a fine omen for Vienna’s international theater scene.

A version of this article was published in
March 2016 issue of METROPOLE