He Takes Her By the Hand … review – desire and dread in Bausch's Macbeth

In Since She, the first of two new full-length pieces created by Tanztheater Wuppertal since the death of Pina Bausch, the dancers build a precarious bridge of chairs across the stage. They are now crossing into unknown territory, working with new choreographers, but the company continue to dig deep into their founder’s back catalogue. This month, at their home base in Germany’s North Rhine-Westphalia, they have unearthed Bausch’s version of Macbeth, commissioned by director Peter Zadek, first seen in 1978 and unperformed for almost 30 years.

The piece’s unwieldy full title is He Takes Her By the Hand and Leads Her into the Castle, the Others Follow. It refers to the end of Act I, Scene VI, where Lady Macbeth ushers Duncan into her home and towards his death. But in the opening scene of Bausch’s piece, designed by her partner, Rolf Borzik, it is as if the hurly-burly is already done. Mismatched furniture is scattered across a sloped stage – a wonky armchair here, an old bedframe there – and a hose is on full blast. Water seeps into the crimson carpet, echoing Macbeth’s vision of a sea turned red. The lights dim, leaving the warm glow of a jukebox – signalling Bausch’s typically diverse mix of music – and the cast take their positions, draping across couches and sprawling on the floor.

Psychological landscape … Maik Solbach, Jonathan Fredrickson, Oleg Stepanov and Johanna Wokalek. Photograph: Klaus Dilger

As day breaks, they toss and turn themselves awake, Breanna O’Mara spinning furiously on the sofa with her whiplash hair, others juddering as if in the last throes of a fever dream. They seem to be rising from the rough night of Duncan’s murder. Over the course of the next three and half hours, some slumber intermittently and others stumble across the stage, much as Bausch herself sleepwalked in Café Müller, which dates from the same burst of creativity in 1978 that also produced Kontakthof.

As they do in Café Müller, dancers in He Takes Her By the Hand slam themselves against walls and battle to save and escape from each other. Two actors join the company; Johanna Wokalek plays the narrator, dipping in and out of Macbeth’s plot as if telling a fairytale while endlessly applying red gloss to lips that she smacks with delight. It is performed almost entirely in German and lines from Shakespeare remain: this is one of the Wuppertal creations that favours theater over tanz. But Bausch is more interested in the psychological landscape of the play, and its merging of domestic and dream worlds. There are no writhing witches as in Carrie Cracknell and Lucy Guerin’s dance-theatre Macbeth from 2015.

Twice, we see the Wuppertal dancers collectively driven mad trying to clean their hands but it feels curiously flat. Bausch gained greater emotional charge from her trademark scenarios of couples locked in cryptic, abusive and occasionally tender exchanges. Michael Strecker appears as a stony-faced sadist while a squabbling Julie Shanahan and Jonathan Fredrickson demand massages from each other in a scene of comic despair.

He Takes Her By the Hand and Leads Her into the Castle, the Others Follow.

Hysteria … He Takes Her By the Hand and Leads Her into the Castle, the Others Follow. Photograph: Uwe Stratmann

The piece is punctuated by frenzied bursts of playful hysteria. An armchair is tickled, there’s a squabble over a duvet, dancers dive on to sofas and boxes of toys are upended. These lie scattered on the floor and, with numerous nursery rhymes sung in different languages, bring to mind the youth among the play’s death toll. But often the games feel random and do not coalesce with the rest of the action as they do in Bausch’s later Masurca Fogo, which similarly features dancers creating impromptu splash pools.

Restaged by Josephine Ann Endicott and Hans Dieter Knebel, who both performed in its premiere, He Takes Her By the Hand extends one of Shakespeare’s tautest plays to Lear length. Wokalek is done with the plot by the interval and a baggier second half has longueurs but also some standout, very Wuppertalian set pieces including a carnivalesque procession through which they fret and flirt. This was the first of Bausch’s works created with the method of asking her dancers questions to be answered through movement, and it is fascinating when Shanahan takes control of a similar process, setting challenges for the others.

There are moments here that are sadder and funnier than in any Macbeth I’ve seen. But what Bausch bottled from Shakespeare’s tragedy is the gnawing sense of dread and desire, and the turbulent forces that usher us all through life and towards death.

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