Portrait Bettina Meyer

A pram is balanced at a vertiginous height on the edge of a protective wall against ricochets and plunges invariably at the same place into the depths. A World War Two radio swings like a outsized metronome over a flowering meadow from which, when one walks through it, voices rise up; a shed full of spent cartridge shells which have been arranged with meticulous care in an obscure order; a solitary house in an empty landscape in whose window a sign “Home” promises what it does not provide – dream images of a fugitive landscape of remembrance emerging from previously found material, traces of a concrete past.

Spaces of memory

Bettina Meyer’s first work was not done for the stage, but rather at a history-fraught site in Hamburg-Rahlstedt, near the place where she grew up, on the abandoned shooting range “Höltigbaum”. Here, in the final months of the Nazi regime, so-called “demoralisers” were placed before firing-squads. Amidst the numerous commemorations of the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War and with the help of mechanical sculptures and picture-like installations, Meyer sought and found here her own coming to terms with rituals of remembrance. Many of her stage designs, which she has been creating now for ten years mainly for the director Barbara Frey, can be read as spaces of memory.

Spaces of consciousness

Although they make at first glance a quite concrete impression, her spaces are seldom defined. Towards naturalistic elaborations Meyer appears to harbour a fundamental scepticism; they appear at most as quotations, as a picture within the picture, confined to a few square metres. Her spaces are rather spaces of consciousness which indicate a loss that is discovered only once man, the actor, makes his entrance. Then begins a peculiar interaction, similar to the relation between a passepartout and a picture: the space enlarges the face of the actor and that which shines through this is reflected into the space. Meyer’s spaces completely refuse to serve as protective spaces for the characters; every gesture is given over to observation. There are no places to retreat; furniture is seldom found on the stage. Seating – unless in the form of a sofa landscape that directly makes up the whole set, as in the premier of Lukas Bärfuss’s The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents – exists at most subject to recall, as in The Cherry Orchard, where the furnishings hang from ropes and threaten to vanish into the rigging loft at any moment, or in the form of folding chairs set into the wall which do not exactly invite one to linger, as in her set for Uncle Vanya. Or again in the form of hard armless wooden benches that stand so near the stage apron that the actors threaten to topple over into the front seats, as in Tales From the Vienna Woods, a design which not only generates the exposure of the characters, but also makes this its subject by cutting circular openings into the high, light-grey walls that bound the stage on three sides. They have the effect of ubiquitous, blindly starring eyes into which the actors can push their faces so as voyeuristically to spy on events. The climate of Horvath’s play, its latent violence, its clammy scabrousness, is thus already evoked by the set. It forces the figures into positions which make them either gawkers or the gawked at. That the structure of Valerie’s tobacconist’s shop, found like the doll hospital and butcher’s shop behind those grey walls, shows only face and sex is not an accident.

Spaces of longing

The people is Meyer’s spaces are thrown back on themselves. They must themselves generate the warmth that they need. In this way, the sets enable director Barbara Frey to pursue precisely that which she seeks to study in the most precise manner in her productions: the emergence of a social structure, the social friction produced by language, the act of speech, by bodily gestures, the revelation or veiling of neediness.

Strikingly often there are large colour slides in Meyer’s sets, which form the rear wall, or video images (in collaboration with Bert Zander) used as light sources or moving frescos that lend wing to the architecture. Here a beautiful contradiction opens up. Though technical images actually pretend not to be symbolic, Meyer applies these loans from reality precisely so as to underscore the semiotic and fictive element of her spaces. Through this, her spaces occasionally receive a strange poetic life of their own, something longing, something that, for its part, seems to mourn its emptiness. For this life of the spaces always begins only once the characters have again abandoned them.

Judith Gerstenberg

Judith Gerstenberg began working as a dramaturg at the Theater Basel in 1998. In the 2006/07 season, she moved to the Vienna Burgtheater. Since the season 2009/2010 she is chief dramaturge at the Schauspiel Hannover. She has known Bettina Meyer since their time together as assistants at the Deutsches Schauspielhaus Hamburg and has since then worked with her on numerous productions.

Translated by Jonathan Uhlaner