Abgrund – The Abyss

Reviewer's Rating

Can you wear suit-pants to a soirée? Can you stop using condoms as long as you take preventative measures against AIDS? Why should you say ‘refugee’ instead of ‘migrant’? All such topics, controversial and trivial alike, make for provocative dinner conversation and are discussed amongst friends at a party hosted by the young couple, Bettina and Matthias. Whilst the adults wrangle and drink wine, five-year old Pia and her newborn sister Gertrud sleep peacefully in their room… that is until a horrible tragedy strikes, turning reality into a nightmare!

For his tenth staging at the Gémeaux, Thomas Ostermeier chooses to equip the spectators with headphones which, besides sporting excellent sound quality, give a fantastic impression of distance that, as matter of fact, is also represented by a thin, transparent screen placed between the characters and the audience. This scene looks like something out of a TV show with the action divided into several episodes under varying titles: ‘Children’s Room 1’, ‘Milk’, ‘If’ and ‘Spelt’. The use of video is ingenious as it permits the filming of some sequences off stage, particularly the ones that occur in the children’s room. This stage device builds tension and fear; it seems as if you lose control of the tragedy as the action occurs outside of your line of vision.

From the very beginning of the play, Ostermeier succeeds in rendering a seemingly banal scene extremely worrying. First, in a remarkable way, the sound installation permits us to hear the characters’ speeches alongside such noises as a knife slicing a lemon, glasses clinking and spoons scraping the bottom of a ramekin… bringing us seamlessly back to the materiality of the upper-middle-class. Indeed, in this play, the majority of the characters do try to embody this status – in particular the two women interpreted by Alina Stiegler and Jenny König. For this purpose, they cleverly make use of all of society’s codes of decorum – dress, speech and behaviour.

The director, very astutely, focuses on the moment of climax and demonstrates how such moments of instability allow fear to saturate everyday life. As the drama progresses, you gradually make out the true face of the characters, especially in the episodes when the screen is removed (a device which, at length, unfortunately becomes rather predictable and tiring despite its clever allegory). But, the first sequence remains poignant: one of the guests confesses his affection in an unsettlingly inappropriate manner towards the young Pia… this challenging atmosphere makes you (perhaps) laugh nervously, but mostly empathise with the characters.

This show would benefit by having the tragic twist occur earlier in the play, once the atmosphere and the issues of social class have been firmly established. The shock would, as a result, have more time to be developed in its complexity and thus show the characters as being torn between denial, pointless discussions, uncontrollable emotions and futile hope. Another issue, technical this time, is found in the surtitles; at times, they appear too late and, for the most part, do not translate the entire line! As such, it frustratingly detracts from the performance – especially to someone that does not not speak a word of German.

Despite this, Abgrund – The Abyss remains a very good show; it juggles the horror of tragedy and relief of humour with a nuanced appreciation that encompasses both the satirical views of the characters and the desperation of the situation.

Ostermeier’s new work remains, undoubtedly, in line with his reputation – deeply current and astutely political.