World premiere schauspiel leipzig: black box in the white cube

Eriopis" by the Finnish author E.L. Karhu was premiered in Leipzig. But you can’t really get a grip on the main character.

Michael Wilhelmi accompanies Medea’s daughter on the grand piano Photo: Rolf Arnold

Now she is alone in this big white room, eating popcorn. Alone, after her mother killed her two little brothers and disappeared forever with the best sled dogs of the stable in the vastness of Lapland. Traumatized, disturbed and adolescent, these are the first associations with Eriopis. She is the surviving daughter of Medea in the play of the same name by E.L. Karhu, which premiered at Schauspiel Leipzig on March 6.

It is the Finnish author’s second work here. In 2017, her "Princess Hamlet" was shown in a very poppy production that highlighted the play’s feminism. With "Eriopis," E.L. Karhu once again approaches one of the great European dramatic materials. She tries to create sparks from the story of the Greek king’s son Jason and the barbarian daughter Medea. Medea has left her home for Jason and betrayed the family and then, when Jason wants to leave her, she decides to kill not only her Corinthian rival but also her two sons at once so that they will not be at the mercy of the survivors’ revenge.

Karhu introduces Eriopis as the third child and surviving daughter, who is now to live as an only child with her prominent but unknown father and his new wife. To do so, she must leave the wasteland of the Finnish countryside where her mother ran a hotel with sled dog excursions. In the end, she may return there.

The director Anna-Sophie Mahler and her set designer Katrin Connan now place the half-orphan Medea in a white cube, in order to then illuminate the black box Eriopis, to make her speak. But the singerim Yuka Yanagihara, who here acts as Eriopis in black and gray leggings and top, says nothing at first and will also later sing exclusively to the music of Michael Wilhelmi, who accompanies live on a castrated wing: "I love the murderess, but the murderess doesn’t love me."

Peeling an onion

That leaves only the talking Julia Berke, acting somewhere between narrator, probing journalist and teenage alter ego, to tell the story.

But which one, actually? The play is reminiscent of peeling an onion with constant recurrence of the same motifs of loneliness, disgust, not belonging (wanting), the hotel visitors, the old father with his new golden wife, as well as mythological-mystical excursions into nature, to the wolves and the forest with the lost and frozen tourists.

Linguistically, these are often powerful images, and Berke delivers a well-accented performance. But the production almost consistently refuses scenic images; instead, director Mahler relies on effects. A live video shot with a smartphone is thrown onto the white walls, creating mirror-like optical loops of Yanagihara’s face, but mostly just duplicating what is already being said anyway.

A lot of floor fog, bright colors and of course the music, which sometimes comes across as atonally disturbing, sometimes as harmonic accompanying strumming, fill the time. In addition, the pianist Wilhelmi has to serve as the father’s figurehead. Where this directorial hand wants to go remains open. It does not manage to grasp the text, and so all the great convulsions of themes soon stand side by side in a vacuum, while Berke communicates them like a classical messenger.

The riddles that the text opens up, which artfully plays between different levels of reality and dream, fizzle out without consequence. When Eriopis fantasizes about her mother as the owner of a hotel, for example, and the border between memory and projection becomes blurred – Shining sends its regards – this is no longer of interest in the third loop, even if the piece starts from here to the operatic final apotheosis with light and fog. Very fitting. Much remains in the fog here, but the black box remains closed.