The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant – A woman is a woman is a woman is a woman. (Theatre Review)
The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant
Mophead Productions and Red Line Productions
Old Fitz Theatre 11 October to 12 Novemeber
Images: Clare Hawley
The man who can write about women is rare – not because men are incapable, but because the way women think, operate and engage with the broader world is misinterpreted at best and ignored at worst – but the bisexual Fassbinder could do it. In His chilling incitement of relationships in The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, he did the unthinkable and cast the lover he physically and emotionally abused (the truly brilliant Irm Hermann) in the role of Marlene, the masochistic silent observer of the great Petra Von Kant. This role alone speaks to the arcane power of The woman in the corner, The abused wife, The female chattel, her enforced silence and her terrifying omnipresence. No abuse can eliminate her even has her very existence is its own perpetual damnation. It’s a remarkable theatrical role – the most powerful person in the room remains silent and never appears centre stage – but it also speaks to the power of the observer, and (of course) the audience themselves. Petra’s theatrics and Marlene’s witness mirror theatre itself, the silent obedient audience seemingly at the service of the adored performer, when at the heart of this relationship is the ever present reminder of the terrifying reverse – that any moment there might be no audience, no witness. The Dominants power always comes from the submissive’s will to allow it.
And such an idea boils away at the heart of relationships, claims Fassbinder, most obvious and real in the antics of females, from their pampered preening to catch a mate, through to their insistence upon the power exchange. Love is always a mystery, for it includes the misery we demand for its authenticity to appease our death drive, but its pain is the very worst there is. But once confirmed safe, we can’t help ourselves and we search for a way to rationalise and hurt our way out of the ecstasy. Everyone who had a mother seeks the comfort of being the “only other” in the eyes of a person they imagine to be greater than themselves, but how often it is that the love itself forces us to question that others greatness. It’s like the Groucho Marx line, I’d never want to join a club that would have me as a member. How can the object of our affection truly be greater if they love us? And so begins the grinding away of beauty on behalf of the comfort of stepping back from the abyss. Says Fassbinder, this stepping away reveals humans at their worst and what they do to each other deeply cruel. Petra makes this observation herself, claiming life is predestined, people are brutal and hard, and everyone is replaceable. However, her wisdom emerges from her safety, not under the test of her pain.
Theatrics is everything in The Bitter Tears of Pera Von Kant and rather than masking the goings on underneath, for Fassbinder they are the conduit, the vehicle by which we understand each other. It is no accident that this world revolves around fashion, that equally vacuous, ruthless and devastatingly beautiful world of transparent masks. Petra’s histrionics in losing her lover are not only a calamitous attack on her surrounds, or a release of that which is pent up. They are also her method by which she arrives at herself… a calm version of her own dysfunction. The final moments of the play reveal she has learnt nothing, or is it that she has learned everything and found her way back to the start? For Fassbinder, who conducted love in a similar fashion to Petra – pursuing it while disavowing it – the soul crushing drama was an inevitability of loves depths and mysteries. Our lover is our audience just as we are theirs and if you loathe societies conventions and rules surrounding love, remember they are box that allows the enormity to exist. Love is not convention, but convention allows us to experience love.
But for a female, the wonder and joy of Fassbinder’s writing here lies in the extension and depth of his exploration. Women are not depicted as the mindless victims of romance novels as Flaubert condemns them, but rather he philosophizes on their alternate reality and searches for the expository depth – a privilege under which male behavior has languished. Women are mysteries not to be wondered at, but revealed, examined and engaged with. One gets a sense from The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant of a world about which we know little. No character can be easily dismissed or simply explained away. Karin’s flightiness, hatred for her own passion and stunning cruelty is its own riddle, unencumbered by clumsy psychoanalytical explanations or mindless deterministic observations. These creatures, presented as they are, are new to us, even though we recognise them from our everyday, we have not defined the world they inhabit.
Just as Fassbinder’s relationship with Irm Hermann was dependent upon her performances in his films, so Petra’s with Marlena is dependent on Marlena’s work as an assistant. Women have consistently worked behind the scenes, allowing men to take credit but this offer has always been conditional upon the power exchange. Women become wild with anger when men refuse the relational acknowledgement, to the point that now she has given up on it entirely seeking her own way. Petra turns to Marlena as a cheating husband returns to a wife in the failure of an open affair and Marlena responds with acknowledgement of the game or the ultimatum of abandonment.
For women, the world men have created is a joke of sorts, a silly little game that each acknowledgement, each male success fails to reinforce. “Yes yes,” she says, “but never forget those at home, who know you.” Female relational confidence comes from this knowledge and a man’s fidelity is the unspoken acknowledgement of power exchange. In its absence, he loses everything. Fassbinder knows this keenly, but avoids reducing a feminine philosophy to a commentary on sexism by making Petra a man. When Freud asked what do women want, he did so because he lacked the insight of Fassbinder.
Shane Bosher has never been better in realising this contemporary version of The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant. The film is a masterpiece, more relevant now than ever before, but Bosher draws enough depth to carry the spirit of Fassbinder’s intent. Here is a brilliant writer, wildly misinterpreted, brought to life by a director who truly loves and honours him. With the margin for error possible within this complex play it’s something of a miracle that Bosher pulls it off so successfully – trusting the writer more than he trusts himself. This makes the weight of The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant tumble into place with the Marlena’s final look, just as it should.
Bosher is assisted by a great cast headed up by Sarah Wiseman who gives a vigorous and nuanced performance as Petra calling forth all the character phases with dissimilitude and panache. The performances are superb by all the cast; Taylor Ferguson as Karin (she has such wonderfully fiery eyes) Eloise Snape (shining) as the complex and sound-of-mind-bitch Sidonie, Judith Gibson (as a delightfully confused mother) and Mia Rorris brings weight to her role as Petra’s daughter Gabrielle. But the outstanding performance of the production is Matilda Ridgway as Marlene, the mannequin-like work wife, the strangely alluring every-woman, the hypnotically visceral latency. It’s no small thing to say this is the best I’ve seen Matilda Ridgway, as she is a fine actress who brings depth to every role, but as Marlene to Sara Wiseman’s Petra she electrifies the stage and seeps her way into the psyche of every woman present.
It must be mentioned that Alex Berlarge’s lighting design enhances captured moments as Bosher has his cast pose, model-style between scenes forcing Fassbinder’s aesthetics into the modern day. This works well and rounds out the emotionality of the moving theatrics.
The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant is easily one of the most thrilling productions of 2016. A great thank you goes to Red Line Productions for yet another stellar contribution but most of all to Mophead Productions and Shane Bosher for bringing such a superb piece of writing alive for us here in Sydney.