Visiting Kindertotenlieder by Holland Festival associate artist Gisèle Vienne on 17 June foreshadows one of the pleasures of the post-corona era many are hoping for. With test events such as the Holland Festival, Spring Performing Arts Festival and the upcoming Julidans, the international community is flooded with opportunities to see shows. Kindertotenlieder makes its audience acutely aware what live theatre is really made of. 

Aside from the Corona regulations and restrictions society as a whole is having to deal with, I wonder if theatre has changed during the past year and what the implications will be in the long run. Has our way of perceiving already altered under the circumstances? Spoiled by the proximity of the camera after watching streams all year round, it takes some adjusting to the good old theatre machine. With the gradual incline of the seating in the auditorium at Amsterdam’s Zuiveringshal West, the distance to the stage grows. It keeps you from getting drawn into this particular world Vienne calls forth. Added to the slow development on the floodlit stage that is covered in falling snow, keeping your eyes on the action is not easy.

However, watching Kindertotenlieder on screen would not be an option. The work that choreographer and director Gisèle Vienne created in 2007 and that she has revived for the Holland Festival, makes an appeal to the body. The body of the spectator needs to be present in the same space the characters Vienne portrays, to undergo the same violence they suffer. 

photo: Mathilde Darel

Kindertotenlieder evolves around the death of a young man. Starting point is the scene where his friends attend his funeral and his favourite death metal band plays a concert. Gradually, this point of departure distorts into earlier events and acts of aggression and abuse which lay bare the relations between all the young men on stage. Apart from the worship of the band, they participate in the Austrian tradition of the Perchten, a cult that is revived in the mountains by young men wearing masks and bear suits. Whether they are jumping ahead in a mutually shared global phenomenon such as death metal or backwards into local traditions, the fascination for alienation and violence is manifest. The continuum of everlasting snowfall turns out to be inescapable and haunting. 

The dialogues, written by longtime collaborator and novelist Dennis Cooper, present the characters of Jonathan, friend of the deceased, killer boy doll and suicidal boy doll, and a ghost. The alienation is heightened by Vienne’s play with living and non-living creatures that populate the scene. The stretching of time to the limits and the relatively scarce action easily fools you; even later on during the performance as you are fully aware from the start that not everybody onstage is ‘alive’, it is easy to confuse who is and who is not. What complicates matters is that the characters’ voices are sometimes difficult to discern amid the noise, and figuring out who is actually talking takes some effort.

During Kindertotenlieder Stephen O’Malley and Peter Rehberg – who founded their band KTL in 2007 – give a live concert within the show, building a sonic landscape that at times seem to slice your eardrums. And as these sounds make your heart pound, and the naked body in the snow makes you shiver, slowly all these wandering souls are creeping under your skin.

Program Holland Festival

Featured photo: Mathilde Darel