Artaud, the language of pain. Writing from the experience that the masterworks are the accomplices of power. Thinking at the end of the Enlightenment, thinking that began with the death of God. Enlightenment is the coffin He was buried in, and it is putrefying with His corpse. Life imprisoned in this coffin. ... The lightning that split Artaud's consciousness was Nietzsche's experience that thinking might be the last joy of mankind. Artaud is the terminal case. He wrested literature from the hands of the police, the theatre from the hands of medicine. His texts blossom under the sun of torture that is shining with equal force on all continents of this planet. Read on the ruins of Europe, his texts will be classics.
That's Heiner Müller on Artaud, offering, as Carl Weber suggests in his introduction to Müller's Quartet, a lens for his own art. One of the most undeceived observers of 20th century Europe, Müller's work always has a post-Apocalyptic edge; Müller walks, like his Hamlet, with "the ruins of Europe behind me".
Quartet, based on Choderos de Laclos's epistolary novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses (also the source of a celebrated adaptation by Christopher Hampton) is a case in point. The opening stage directions bookend the birth and death of Enlightenment Europe: Timespace: Drawing Room before the French Revolution. Air raid shelter after World War III. The protagonists, Merteuil and Valmont, are both decadent libertines, seeking oblivion in sexual excess; but that fleeting corporeal bliss has, like all drugs, lost its potency with repetition. Müller presents us with a picture of hell, in which souls are tormented by their own decaying bodies. "Your breath tastes of solitude," says Merteuil, in her opening monologue to an absent Valmont. "Let's rub our hides together..."
All that is left to titillate these jaded appetites is the destruction of innocence. The two conspire to seduce Merteuil's virginal niece, Volange, and the virtuous wife Madame de Tourvel, breaking and abusing them for their amusement. In Müller's play these sadistic seductions are played out by the two protagonists in a grotesque endgame in which both sides know the only winner is death. Shot through with Müller's pitiless intelligence, Quartet generates a perverse beauty. It's essentially a play of long monologues which highlight the existential isolation of each character, layered with literary allusions that create a darkly scintillating surface. But here civilisation and culture are simply baubles that adorn decaying flesh: Müller's lapidary style is thick with corporeality, the obscenity of the body.
The independent company A is for Atlas signals its ambition with its production of this challenging text, which is performed in tandem with The Razor, a new music work by Annie Hseih written for violin and cello. As you enter the space, the first thing you notice is Grant Cooper's breath-taking and ingenious design: the audience sits in a single row looking down into what is effectively a pit, where Merteuil (Felicity Steel) stands on the floor on the stage. It's a kind of grunge take on an ancien régime drawing room, with alcoves in which are set television screens (which take live feeds of the actors) or mirrors. The music is performed by Larissa Weller and Jonathan Tasio, who are seated level with the audience.
It opens with the first movement of The Razor, as Merteuile moves out of stillness into what is effectively a kind of dance. Her movements signal the rhythmic style of the play: like the delivery of the text, they are are languorous, slow and highly controlled. Eroticism here is signalled by distance (and, interestingly, in the spectacularly beautiful costuming). Merteuile's first dialogue with Valmont is still all but a monologue: Valmont (Andrew Gray) crouches in an alcove in the wall, eating strawberries. The effect is hieratic and stylised, and perhaps a little over-aestheticised, although Hseih's nervy take on Haydn gives a welcome barbed edge to the performance.
Merteuile and Valmont play out their fatal games, tearing each other to pieces with their language but seldom broaching the formal stylisation of performance. After a while, the unvarying rhythms begin to damp down the language. This style of poetic delivery is a hard ask for actors: I think that the only time I've seen it successfully achieved is in Steve Berkoff's National Theatre production of Salome, when performers would move front stage to speak Wilde's poetic perorations to the moon in a thrilling theatrical sprachgesung. When the conceit does work here, it's marvellous, but a lot of the time it doesn't quite hit the mark, and over the course of the play its major effect is to flatten out the theatricality of Müller's language. It was sometimes difficult, for example, to track the shifts in the character's roles: there's a lot of play in the language that is left unplayed.
The main thing missing in Xan Coleman's direction is the stench of death: and it's death that rules here. Through the deaths of his characters, Müller is tracking the death of God, the death of love, the death of the whole Enlightenment project, in which reason was supposed to save humankind from itself. Here he savagely takes apart that folly by dramatising the torment of reason in the rotting chains of the body's lust.
Paradoxically, I felt the text was respected too much, as if the company is seduced by the beauty of Müller's language: on the one hand, the formality of the production imprisoned the actors, just as the characters are imprisoned in their bodies: but on the other, the text is so full of rot, excrement, blood, mucus and so on, that the tension between the aesthetic cleanliness of the production and the physical savagery of the language simply broke apart. One felt that Merteuile should have spat on Valmont's corpse, rather than strewing it with rose petals. In the end, it just was too pretty.
The only other time I've seen Quartet was in an eye-popping production directed by Ariette Taylor in the early 90s. It was performed in the foyer of the Playbox on a tiny, bare stage, with Robert Morgan and Melita Jurisic (whom I saw a couple of weeks ago in Kosky's scorching meditation on love and death, Poppea) at their savage best. That sets the benchmark high indeed. But for all my reservations, this is an eye-catchingly impressive production, which firmly places A is for Atlas in the ranks of companies to watch.
Quartet by Heiner Müller after Laclos, translated by Carl Weber, and The Razor by Annie Hsieh, after Haydn. Directed by Xan Coleman, designed by Grant Cooper, costumes by Julie Renton and lighting by Suze Smith. With Andrew Gray and Felicity Steel. Musicians Larissa Weller and Jonathan Tosio. A is for Atlas, @ J-Studios, 100 Barkly St, North Fitzroy.