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PROGRAMME DETAIL

Heinrich von Kleist Penthesilea

A Tragedy (1808)

Adaptation of the text by Vasco Boenisch

New production

Co-production with the Schauspielhaus Bochum

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CREATIVE TEAM

Johan Simons, Director
Johannes Schütz, Sets
Nina von Mechow, Costumes
Vasco Boenisch, Dramaturgy

CAST

Sandra Hüller, Penthesilea
Jens Harzer, Achilles

ABOUT THE PRODUCTION

The scene is a battlefield. And the protagonists are warriors and lovers at one and the same time. Predestined by fate, Penthesilea must vanquish Achilles, the leader of the Greek army. Only in turning him into spoils of war can the proud Amazon win him. This frenzy ends fatally. For both. ‘Kisses; bites – both use the mouth, and loving from the heart can mean taking the one for the other’; through these legendary words Penthesilea becomes aware of her deadly error. A tragedy. A trauma? A Traum – a dream?

When Heinrich von Kleist published his tragedy Penthesilea in 1808, it very quickly gained a reputation among its contemporaries as being unplayable. Goethe was unable ‘to warm to it’ and opined that Kleist ‘was waiting’ (albeit in vain) ‘for a kind of theatre yet to come.’ Other voices castigated the play as mere sensationalism, as crude, wild, as racked with feverish twitchings, horrendous, monstrous, disgusting. What was it that so strongly repelled these first readers, that in their view made the play impossible to perform? Was it simply that which could not be portrayed, such as the way Penthesilea tears Achilles to pieces with a pack of hounds? Or was it more that which could not even be imagined, such as her doing such a thing at all?
When the play begins, the armies of the Greeks and the Trojans stand facing one another at the gates of Troy. Along with her army, Penthesilea, queen of the Amazons, joins the battle, and it soon becomes clear that aggressive and libidinous energies are overlapping here. As her mother had predicted, Penthesilea falls in love with the Greek Achilles on the field of battle. Her love is as unconquerable as is the war hero himself; she confronts him on the field over and over so as to subjugate him in the fight and – as prescribed by the law of the Amazons –to conduct him to her kingdom as her spouse.
But it is Achilles who wounds her instead. When she regains consciousness, she believes she has won, and Achilles plays along with her. That is the first instance in which reality is lost. After the other Amazons have managed to gain release of their queen, however, Achilles demands a return encounter; his actual intention is to let it seem she has defeated him. But this game of love and war turns serious to the point of bloodshed for him; Penthesilea doesn’t detect his ruse and becomes ever more enraged. She strikes him a deadly blow. And with her dogs she hurls herself onto the corpse of Achilles, tearing him limb from limb, ripping him to pieces. Upon awakening from this frenzy, upon realizing and seeing the reality, she chooses to commit suicide.
Through his play Penthesilea Kleist poses the question as to what it is possible to portray, as to what can be placed on display or remain hidden. It is also the question of consciousness and unconsciousness. To what extent are humans in control of their own senses? And does it remain an illusion to think that one can leave the scene of a struggle?

The new production by Johan Simons will focus the core of the drama on two actors only, Penthesilea and Achilles. Duel and duet. Two human beings caught between calculated deceit and madness, between dream and reality, between war and enduring peace, between repletion and recognition. A battle field of words, of feelings, of all that is unsayable.
Johan Simons is numbered among the most significant contemporary theatre directors and has been the recipient of numerous international awards and prizes. In his capacity as artistic director he has headed – among others – the NTGent, the Munich Kammerspiele, the Ruhrtriennale and, as of the 2018/19 season, the Schauspielhaus Bochum. Sandra Hüller and Jens Harzer will portray Penthesilea and Achilles; they performed together in the film Requiem (2005) and are associated with Johan Simons through intensive working relationships. Eleven years after mounting Prinz Friedrich von Homburg in Munich, Hüller and Simons are now continuing their common involvement with Heinrich von Kleist. To quote Johan Simons: ‘As a Netherlander it strikes me that Kleist requires four sentences whereas a writer today would need a thousand. That isn’t meant as a judgment of quality, but it says a great deal about the speed of the age in which we live.’

Vasco Boenisch, Translation: Vincent Kling

Cy Twombly · Fifty Days at Iliam, Part I: Shield of Achilles, 1978 · Philadelphia Museum of Art · Courtesy: Archives Nicola Del Roscio, © Cy Twombly Foundation, 2017

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