Reaching for the Home within You | Sunday Observer

Reaching for the Home within You

Theatregoers in Colombo don’t often get the opportunity to see foreign productions come alive on the boards. The annual Colombo International Theatre Festival (CITF) is a significant event as it offers the theatre scene in Colombo an array of foreign productions which can be seen at a very reasonable price.

On May 27, I watched, as part of this year’s CITF, the monodrama ‘Leaving Ziller Valley’ come alive on the boards of the Wendt. A solo actor performance, it revolves around a single character. I wish to make the distinction here with regard to how a solo performance doesn’t necessitate a solo character. A single artiste can do a solo performance in which several characters may be portrayed. Therefore, it is pertinent to distinguish this performance as a solo act with one character.

The play opened with an urbane woman arriving onstage with what is a typical piece of luggage meant for air travel. The audio element filled the auditorium with soft jazz music that is symbolic of plush, upscale New York City dining establishments as shown in western media. The backdrop on stage that formed part of the stagecraft was a video projection of a view from a high-rise down at a city covered by night, sparkling with lights. A vista of New York City one might suppose. Thus opened ‘Leaving Ziller Valley’ as a stage play with a somewhat ‘mixed media approach’ when it comes to the design of the production.

I couldn’t help but note that this play contained the ‘f word’ as part of the narrative, but was pretty much open to a general audience without age restrictions. I do not intend to play a self appointed one man censor board role, I do not say that the contents of this play is offensive, but how well this sits with under age viewers is perhaps something worth thinking about.

‘Leaving Ziller Valley’ is an Austrian production directed by Reinhard Göber and performed by actress Julia Rosa Stöckl. A play about the emotional and psychological struggle of an individual over the desire to create a fixed identity and notion of ‘home’ in a globalised world, it is a bilingual play with English as the more predominant language while Austrian is also integral to the narrative. This English-Austrian bilingual monodrama shows one of the dilemmas of the present day urbane ‘global citizen’.

Investigation

In my opinion this play in part is an internal investigation, an introspective monologue of self reflection and verbalisation of the individual’s crisis in a world that is said to be a global village, but has large divides and discrepancies in both, social and economic aspects, where vibrant cultural diversity can just as easily cause cultural displacement to the individual who is conscious of and emotionally attached to his or her roots.

The female character played compellingly by Stöckl is circumstanced to live the life of a sophisticated businesswoman spending a significant amount of time travelling by plane and living out of a suitcase.

She is no doubt successful in her line of work and has achieved much for herself, yet, is dogged by an isolation that has been internalised over the course of how her life has taken her away from her roots and perhaps the notion of her original self.

Played out on a practically bare stage the woman in the striking red dress shows how symbolic elements such as, music and song can project one’s inner being and the identity that is ascribed to her.

It is still a sense of self accreditation that seems to be the case in this character as there doesn’t seem to be an ‘agency of state’ that determines her to be more a ‘global citizen’ than Austrian. I couldn’t help but feel the narrative is in one sense a contestation of the notion of a global citizen which is to a great degree a notion driven by the globalised system of consumerist capitalism.

The narrative speaks of how Austria although a country with a grand history and immense depth of culture that has contributed to reach heights in European civilisation is made to pale against the new economic giants like the USA.

And what could better symbolise the U.S machine for its claim for centre-stage commercialism than the metropolis of New York City where the intensity of diversity nearly erases within its geography the idea of a distinct ‘nationality’ in the traditional sense. Stöckl’s character raised the concerns of Austria as a nation that is made to seem like the country cousin of the more prominent, dominant Germany.

And indeed, this anxiety among Austrians is perhaps the historical consequence of the Anschluss in 1938. Austria is made to feel it must be in the shadow of Germany, deprived of her right to be known as once a glorious centre of the western world. This performance which breaks the fourth wall and seeks audience participation to respond to questions and repeat words of the ‘Austrian language’ staunchly projected as ‘not German’ but the language of Austria which has in fact, its ‘own language’. Furthering the cause for Austrian identity to be established beyond her continental European borders, Stöckl’s character asked her Asian audience, who is the most famous Austrian in the world? It was not a rhetorical question but one that sought active responses.

Mozart came out from the audience but didn’t satisfy the lady in red. Realising at the outset what was being sought was the name, regardless of whether it be of fame or infamy, but the fact of being known across the world, the answer yet failing to be delivered from the rest of the audience, yours truly yelled out ‘Adolf Hitler!’ The lady in red was satisfied and expressed her thanks for the answer.

Claims

She then said, even one of the most notorious men in world history has been simply given over to Germany although Hitler was in fact an Austrian. For better or for worse, even Hitler is virtually taken over from Austria’s factual claims, by Germany.

In the larger context of modern western power dynamics, does Austria fear that it is being made to seem provincial and belittled? Do Austrians today feel their national identity makes them seem yokels from a ‘backwater of the continent’? Stöckl’s narrative certainly seemed to suggest so to my senses.

It brought to mind what I once read in the foreword to the book ‘The Tools of Titans’ by Tim Ferris. In the book’s foreword, written by a famous ‘American’ who was originally Austrian by nationality –Arnold Schwarzenegger, is the following –“If I had never seen a magazine with Reg Park on the cover and read about his transition from Mr. Universe to playing Hercules on the big screen, I might still be yodelling in the Austrian Alps.”

Do Austrians, like the character portrayed by Stöckl harbour the anxiety that it is commercialist power houses of the present day like the U.S that can offer them opportunity to go beyond the perceived provincial backwardness of Austria? If so, what better place, than New York City to globally symbolise ‘the land of opportunity’. In New York City, Stöckl’s character says she will settle down and thus perhaps find the next best thing to home?

The story of Leaving Ziller Valley grapples at an appreciative layman philosophical level, the question – ‘what is home’? The lady in red expressed how ‘Home’ tends to be not so much a physical place but more as a sentiment and a belief.

“Home is a moment” she said and ventured to contemplate on how the ups and downs of life make her see symbolic likeness in evoking the image of the ocean.

“Life is like the ocean. There will always be waves,” she said ponderously as the final moments made her say what seemed to be a revelation to her inner debate over the central question, “Home, is not being alone”.

Thus I venture to say the greatest diminishment of ‘home’ is perhaps being condemned to imposed solitude and inescapable abandonment. ‘Home’ is, in a way, about sharing a world.

The CITF must be applauded for presenting theatregoers with ‘Leaving Ziller Valley’, a performance to salute and appreciate.

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