As film translator I was once asked by the National Film Theatre in London to do a live translation to Antonin Artaud’s Lettrist poems, spoken at frenetic speed directly to camera during a festival of the French Avantgarde. I did my best to keep pace through his succession of random words and phrases, with Artaud apparently under the influence of mescaline. By comparison the work of Russian Daniil Kharms is relatively tame. I am no stranger to abstract, surreal or avant-garde works so I was much looking forward to Michael Rauter’s piece. Sadly, I was disappointed.
In the Krijn Boon Studio theatre of the Schouwburg over-head projectors were set up, cables snaked across the floor. The performance by Rauter, Katrin Lohman, Johann Günther and Ladislav Zajac began well. Kharms is not exactly a household name with the general public so Katrin Lohman read texts to the sparse audience about Kharms life and his starving to death in a Leningrad prison during the almost nine hundred-day siege in 1941-42.
She explained Kharms’ admiration for his iconic artist friend Malevich whose experiments with projectors to compose colours in light produced a series of black and white squares. To illustrate this the performers pushed projectors around to cast squares of light onto the white curtains surrounding the stage – unfortunately, due to the folds of the curtains and the projectors clipping the corners, we were not treated to the perfect squares Malevich had intended. A number of experimental sequences followed. Small extracts from Kharms’ Blue Notebook were sporadically recited, some truncated to no more than the first line. Sound effects from a cello or on electric guitar followed, occasionally some of Kharms’ more amusing three liners were used, mostly the ones about old men dying.
Similar to Dada poetry, Kharms work, politically and historically loaded, provides a potential goldmine for a theatre maker but there was little time for mining between the adjusting of equipment and much walking around in multi-coloured socks (a nod to Malevich’s passion for colour?). Given that Rauter was dealing with two important Russian artists, it was surprising that the piece was stripped of any Russian context.
Towards the end, colour squares were projected to the reading of infinite colour variations, presumably a list made by Malevich. A sequence expressing utter boredom about the structure of the army was recited to what appeared to be the sound of farts. To close the show, we watched as the cast slowly packed up the equipment while Katrin Lohman recited Kharms’ deeply philosophical poem NOTNOW – This is This, That is That, This is not That …. which I felt described the whole performance – a bit of this, a bit of that, Malevich reduced to a few squares, Kharms to a few lines. What a missed opportunity. Astrid Burchardt 2rd May 2018