M, a reflection

If there is one theme that dominated the oeuvre of the German author Heiner Müller (1929-1995), it is that of the paradoxes and contrasts of history. In the course of a single lifetime he experienced several political regimes: fascism, communism, capitalism and neo-capitalism. He witnessed both the division and the reunification of Germany, and both the Cold War and the post-1989 era. He described better than anyone our primal need for an enemy: the solidarity of master and slave, of Good and Evil, our need for The Other with whom we cannot live but without whom life is equally impossible. Our identity, both individual and political, is after all defined by this Other, whose identity we shape in our turn.
After K, a society (2010), in which he created a series of images based on the world of Franz Kafka, in M, a reflection the theatre-maker and artist Kris Verdonck condenses Heiner Müller’s world into a single image. An image that duplicates itself and enters into dialogue with itself. Onstage the audience sees the actor Johan Leysen who – through the medium of Müller’s writing – enters into conversation with his antipode. His double puts up resistance, contradicts him or backs him up. The two images – the real actor and his reflection – reflect each other both literally and figuratively. Because, in our ‘society of the spectacle’, reality can no longer manage without fiction, and the ‘real’ and the ‘fake’ are inseparably linked.
One day THE OTHER will come to me, the antipode, the double with his face of snow. (Der Auftrag, Heiner Müller)

Two basic elements provide the foundations for the production M, a reflection: the work of the German author Heiner Müller and a stage setting that shows an actor in conversation with his digital double.

Heiner Müller (1929-1995) was obsessed by the history of his country and by the political paradoxes and contrasts of 20th-century Europe. Müller spent most of his life under dictatorial regimes: fascist and communist. He witnessed the division of Germany into two parts and also its reunification, the Cold War and the post-1989 era of unbridled capitalism.

‘The war never ends’. It seems man has a fundamental need for an enemy. Over and over again. Master and slave, good and evil are inseparably linked. A defines A* and vice versa. I define the identity of my opposite, my double, who in his turn defines my identity.
The Other is he/she/it with whom we cannot live together, but without whom that life is equally impossible. Not with and not without.
In the digital multimedia era, which is also the era of the possibility of ‘cloning’, it seems as if man’s age-old attempts to create ‘his own likeness’, a homunculus, may succeed, just as nature (or God?) once created man. The results of these attempts disconcert us. We no longer know who we are. Such notions as ‘originality’ and ‘authenticity’, and such opposing concepts as ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ (or false and fictional) are given a thorough shake-up. Oliver Grau: ‘The concept of ‘the original’ is foreign to the computer.’

So it does not seem odd to us to try, in M, a reflection, to bring these two things together: on the one hand Müller the playwright’s plays and thinking, which are about man and politics, about murderers and victims, and on the other the image of the confrontation between an actor in the here and now and his double on the internet. So that, using Müller’s words, a dialogue is formed between a living actor and his digital multimedia ‘(counter-)identity’. It is not only Müller’s literary writing that will be used, but also material from conversations he had with the German film-maker and author Alexander Kluge.

Although Müller died in 1995, when the greatest wave of digital technology still had to roll over us and the consequences of this deluge still had to become clear, he more than anyone detected the rise of the machine and wrote about its effects. At the time, these advances undeniably appeared in their clearest form in the military sphere, in that infinitely varied spectrum of instruments developed for the exercise of violence. Violence too always has the need for an A and an A*: the party that carries out the violence and those who are subject to it. ‘A certain amount of violence is always needed to make the enterprise function’.

“What is so unsettling about the possibility that a computer might really think? It’s not simply that the original (me) will become indistinguishable from the copy but that my mechanical double will usurp my identity and become the original (a substantial object) while I will remain a subject (…) my double is not my shadow; on the contrary, its very existence reduces me to a shadow. In short, a double deprives me of my being. My double and I are not two subjects; we are I as a (barred) subject plus myself as a (nonbarred) object.” (Slavoj Zizek)

In M, a reflection, the confusion Zizek talks about is shared with / passed onto the audience. The performance organises a clash – in a single person – between the authenticity (the staged reality) of the theatre and the virtual nature of the image acquired digitally.

For example, we have only just learnt to understand, perceive and use the notion and the words ‘slow motion’, and the imitation of slow motion on stage, since technology showed us what it was. Our eyes have learned what slow motion is just as, more recently, they have had to learn to see interactively. Our eyes view things partially in 2D; the brains convert these visual impressions into 3D. They work together intelligently. They are masters of comparison: to be able to see something in a space we need points of reference. So in our perception too we need the other and the different: we can only localise A by means of B, C etc. who are in the same space.

In M, a reflection, our perception is put to work. Illusions are created but they are also shattered, pulled to pieces, to ‘destabilise’ the eyes and brain. In the hope of making them (ourselves, in other words) understand ‘how it works’. In the hope of making a contribution to defining where we stand and who we are. Michael Haneke: ‘To me, open dramaturgy means boycotting the spectator’s systems of coordinates.’ After all, in M, a reflection, the dialogue is not a line between two ‘characters’, but a triangle in which two ‘characters’ relate to an audience. In this sense, M, a reflection (still) remains theatre.

What does a computer care about originality, ‘what does the coast care about the sinking ship?’ In Müller’s work, the sorcerer’s apprentice, the clumsy clown called man, juggles with lives, instruments and ideas which he obstinately tries to keep in the air but which repeatedly escape him. Again and again he tries to restore balance. But technology – the rolling factories called tanks – or nature – the gigantic uncultivated ridge covered with snow that is Siberia – take over. They do their thing without a care for what happens to man. The writer continues to address the audience, and his writings are like messages in a bottle, thrown into the sea, destination unknown. Jean Jourdheuil: ‘Like bottles thrown into the sea, with no addressee identified beforehand, which might otherwise mean: addressed to the dead as much as to the living’.

Text: Marianne Van Kerkhoven

Concept and direction: Kris Verdonck
Dramaturgy: Marianne Van Kerkhoven (Kaaitheater)
Actor: Johan Leysen
Text: Heiner Müller
Dialogues: Heiner Müller and Alexander Kluge
Technical coordination and light design: Jan van Gijsel
Camera and editing: Vincent Pinckaers
Sound design: Stef van Alsenoy
Post production: Loup Brenta / Paul Millot
Costume: An Breugelmans
Dutch Translations: Marcel Otten, Patricia de Martelaere
Surtitles french : Martine Bom
Internship: Kristof Van Baarle
Production and technical coordination: A Two Dogs Company vzw
Coproduction: Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus, Düsseldorf DE, HAU Hebbel am Ufer, Berlin DE, Internationale Keuze van de Rotterdamse Schouwburg, Rotterdam NL, Vooruit, Ghent BE
With the support of: the Flemish Authorities, the Flemish Community Commission
Thanks to: de Warande, Niels Neven, Culture Crew, Fisheye, SIGMA, Berlin, Geert Struyve, Sven Walser
  • 2014
  • 2013
  • 2012
BE Brussels Kaaitheater
BE Brussels Kaaitheater
BE Brugge Cultuurcentrum Brugge
DE Düsseldorf Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus
DE Düsseldorf Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus
BE Dubbelspel, Leuven Kunstencentrum STUK
DE Düsseldorf Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus
DE Düsseldorf Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus
BE Genk C-Mine
NL Maastricht Theater aan het Vrijthof
NL Amsterdam De Brakke Grond
  • M, a reflection - © A Two Dogs Company
  • M, a reflection - © A Two Dogs Company