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Reading Rämistrasse #127: Aoife Rosenmeyer on Helgard Haug/Rimini Protokoll at the Zürcher Theater Spektakel - Akademie - Kunsthalle Zürich

Reading Rämistrasse #127: Aoife Rosenmeyer on Helgard Haug/Rimini Protokoll at the Zürcher Theater Spektakel

«Good night Malaysian 370» were the last words recorded from the pilot of the Malaysia Airlines’ flight MH370 before it disappeared en route from Quala Lumpur to Beijing on 8 March 2014. Helgard Haug’s Rimini Protokoll production All right. Good night. interweaves the story of the aircraft with the narrative of her father’s emerging dementia. Though pieces of wreckage have since been found, to this day it beggars belief that MH370, a Boeing 777 with 239 people on board, could suddenly no longer be seen, heard or registered. Haug’s parallel personal story also deals with the unknown and the unfathomable.

If the two events are quite disparate, Haug makes the contrast fruitful. A commercial plane flight, for example, follows standard communication procedures, with processes for how communication should be reestablished when pilots do not respond. Different international aircraft controllers tried to contact MH370 on the 8 March; the resulting silence did not fit the protocol. Meanwhile, in Beijing Capital International Airport the screens only showed ‘delayed’ – ‘missing’ was not in the airport vocabulary. Haug aligns this with her father’s careful instructions, when healthy, for what was to be done should he be affected by dementia. When he initially showed symptoms, however, he could not accept his failing mental health. Communiques ricocheted between his children; he was impervious.

The staging of these narratives is spare: two stagehands move elements around, while five musicians from the Zafraan Ensemble accompany the stories, following a score by Barbara Morgenstern. As the audience arrives, the musicians are passengers awaiting to board a flight. They unpack instruments and start to play when the performance starts; throughout the subsequent two hours and 20 minutes they pause and shift positions but carry on, slightly apart from the storyline. Towards the close they play in concert with pre-recorded video of other colleagues.

The most striking other intervention is when carts of sand are wheeled in, upended and then shovelled into the form of a beach on which this cast occasionally lazes, awaiting flotsam. In fact, nearly the whole staging is accompaniment or framing – one stagehand introduces each year of the father’s story, the structure which forms the chapters of the work – but there is no further direct speech. Although recorded voices sometimes ring out around the auditorium, the audience reads most of the text, which slips continually from one scenario to the other, from a projection on a gauze that screens the whole stage. It makes frustrating viewing, in keeping with these stories of trying circumstances, yet it effectively internalises them. The stage is a prop for each viewer’s consciousness. Of course, one could say this of any theatre experience, though Haug’s method underlines the transfer of ideas from performance to viewer, while within your head the associative meander is perfectly comprehensible. The brain, particularly under stress, flits from one idea to another. It seeks a foothold, sense, a rationale, a pattern, even when there is none.

One could make the argument that the TV series Lost (2004-2010) has a lot to answer for, conjuring the illusion that a plane might land on a tropical island and the passengers survive for years thereafter. While All right. Good night. lingers over shards of evidence and different theories about the plane’s fate, it includes a good dose of wishful thinking. If the events were so unlikely, so extraordinary, something extraordinary might have happened. And MH370 happened far away, over there, and thus is ripe for our projections from over here. The slow descent of a loved one leaves less capacity for hope, but all too much scope to watch them unravel, for their personality to disintegrate.

“Would death,” friends ask “come as a relief?” But life goes on for the patient, for their family and for all those left behind. Hours – just hours – of being possessed by these narratives is exhausting, and disquieting.

All right. Good night., Helgard Haug / Rimini Protokoll, Zürcher Theater Spektakel, 27–29 August 2023

Reading Rämistrasse

If art criticism is losing ground, we must act. That’s why we created space for criticism – Reading Rämistrasse – on the Kunsthalle Zürich website and publish reviews of current exhibitions in Zürich. What is published here does not represent the opinion of the Kunsthalle Zürich. Because criticism has to be independent.

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