Der Besuch der alten Dame

Nicolas Stemann, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Schauspielhaus Zürich

A tragicomic play about the line between justice and revenge

A wealthy elderly woman visits her birth village and presents the people living there with a dilemma: she will help solve the financial problems of the village and all the villagers by offering a billion, on one condition... 

The condition Claire Zachanassian poses is that one villager, Alfred III, will be sentenced to death. When she was young, this man got her pregnant out of wedlock and then left her, resulting in her social exclusion and banishing from the village. The villagers struggle with the choice. Alfred III ends up appearing before a village tribunal, fearing for his life.

A tragicomic play about the line between justice and revenge

A wealthy elderly woman visits her birth village and presents the people living there with a dilemma: she will help solve the financial problems of the village and all the villagers by offering a billion, on one condition... 

The condition Claire Zachanassian poses is that one villager, Alfred III, will be sentenced to death. When she was young, this man got her pregnant out of wedlock and then left her, resulting in her social exclusion and banishing from the village. The villagers struggle with the choice. Alfred III ends up appearing before a village tribunal, fearing for his life.

Where the cast of the original tragicomic play from 1956 consisted of thirty actors, Nicolas Stemann stages this piece with a cast of only two actors, Patrycia Ziółkowska and Sebastian Rudolph, who take on all the roles together. Their performance is accompanied with energetic live music and video that addresses current issues surrounding gender inequality and consumerism. With this original approach, Stemann underlines the power of fiction in theatre, where each actor can step in and out of any role, and explores the many perspectives in this story through them. What is the difference between revenge and justice? And how does a victim turn into a perpetrator?

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dates

Fri June 10 8:30 PM

Sat June 11 8:30 PM

Sun June 12 8:30 PM

Prices

  • default from € 27
  • CJP/student € 12

language & duration

  • German surtitles: English, Dutch

  • 2 hours 20 minutes (zonder pauze)

Video recordings will be made during the June 12 performance.

Background

After Claire Zachanassian returns to the village and proposes to the villagers to execute Alfred III in exchange for a sum of money, there is a moment when he steps forward. While it is not entirely clear what exactly he did in the past, he takes responsibility and says: ‘Alright, I’m the culprit!’ In this way, he confronts the villagers with the complex questions surrounding guilt and penance, and with their own entanglements in history, their self-enrichment and their hollow humanism. 

Video recordings will be made during the June 12 performance.

Background

After Claire Zachanassian returns to the village and proposes to the villagers to execute Alfred III in exchange for a sum of money, there is a moment when he steps forward. While it is not entirely clear what exactly he did in the past, he takes responsibility and says: ‘Alright, I’m the culprit!’ In this way, he confronts the villagers with the complex questions surrounding guilt and penance, and with their own entanglements in history, their self-enrichment and their hollow humanism. 

Two actors and a musician

Der Besuch der alten Dame by the Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt from 1956 may be the most well-known Swiss play ever. Sixty-five years after its first performance in Schauspielhaus Zurich, all roles will now be played by only two actors, Patrycia Ziolkowska and Sebastian Rudolph, together with the musician Camilla Sparksss.

About his decision to have all roles played by two actors, Stemann says: ‘Evidently, it is not always easy to reduce the play to two actors in a play which mainly functions through situational comedy and visually powerful symbolism. All the more striking when it succeeds.’ He also calls this reduced form a kind of endurance test for a dramatic text. Initially, he asked himself: ‘Does it also function beyond its genre and situational location? What is revealed during this operation that removes ornamentation and reveals structures? Which themes come to the centre?’

 

Shortly after the war

For Stemann, particular themes leaped out at him for being no less relevant today than when the piece was written. It is about repressed feelings of guilt, for one thing. Stemann: ‘When the play was published in 1956, ten years after Auschwitz and the horrors of the Second World War, the idea of a woman who had once been unjustly cast out and now returns rich, powerful and with a thirst for revenge was a very concrete fantasy of fear, and not only in Germany.’

While reading the text, the director was pleasantly surprised by how explicitly Switzerland’s ‘neutrality’ during the Third Reich was commented on: ‘“I didn’t do anything,” the people of Güllen say. At the end of the play, there is a murderous tragedy and a billion more on the account. But no murderers...’

Modern insincerity

That this theme is still highly current, according to Stemann, is for instance shown by how people in Switzerland, and other European countries as well, tend to wash their hands in innocence. ‘The horrors of colonial history have only been moving into the public consciousness for a few years.’ Even though Switzerland is not evidently responsible for this history, to this day it continues to profit from the wealth of countries that are. Stemann: ‘Switzerland, too, would like to wash its hands of the matter with the neutral soap of innocence – and yet Swiss involvement in colonial crimes is striking, even in consideration of the continued profiting from colonial structures. Consequences remain absent.’

Denial and responsibility

In Der Besuch der alten Dame, the villagers of Güllen buy new shoes on credit while denying their responsibility in the impending murder that allows them to do so. A similar mechanism is at work, Stemann explains, with our collective denial of responsibility regarding the climate crisis: 'No, we are not destroying the planet, we are just driving SUVs and “writing it off”. We redeem the credit on which we live and consume today by murdering our children’s future, if not our own. This is how capitalism works – we are not murderers, we just consume. And the greatest protagonist of this bestial capitalist thinking is, ironically and paradoxically, the old lady herself. So, is she a victim or a perpetrator? Der Besuch is about all these great and highly political themes.’

This masterful denial of responsibility that has become second nature to humans intrigued Dürrenmatt then and intrigues Stemann now: ‘Officially, no wars are being fought in this Europe. From a moral high horse and in the name of a “European humanism”, the human rights violations elsewhere are condemned – the profitable (often even causal) involvement in this is denied, blurred and declined.’ (…) ‘The European piles of corpses today are not the result of active murder, but, as in Güllen, of a failure to provide help, for example in the Mediterranean.’

#Metoo

Lastly, Der Besuch der alten Dame is about the relationship between Claire Zachanassian and Alfred Ill. What really happened between them? Of course the piece, despite the clearly lopsided balance of power between the two, was not written as #metoo commentary and therefore can only to a limited extent be used like that. Still, Stemann says: ‘It contains enough poetic truth that goes beyond the instances of sexism (which are, unsurprisingly, plentiful). Taking this thematic richness into account, as well as how all these grand themes are packaged in the form of a tabloid comedy that exhausts the rules of situational comedy to the point of foolishness - it is likely no coincidence or without good reason that this play has become Switzerland’s most successful literary export.’

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  • Der Besuch der alten Dame © Zoe Aubry

    © Zoe Aubry

  • © Zoé Aubry

  • Der Besuch der alten Dame © Zoe Aubry

    © Zoe Aubry

  • © Zoe Aubry

  • © Zoe Aubry

  • © Zoe Aubry

  • Nicolas Stemann © Gina Folly

    © Gina Folly (Nicolas Stemann)

credits

text Friedrich Dürrenmatt cast Sebastian Rudolph, Patrycia Ziolkowska, Camilla Sparksss direction Nicolas Stemann set design Claudia Lehmann video Claudia Lehmann, Jasmin Kruezi, Benjamin Hauser costumes Marysol del Castillo lights Michel Güntert video collaboration Yannik Böhmer dramaturgy Benjamin von Blomberg, Laura Paetau audience development Silvan Gisler theatre pedagogy Manuela Runge, Theresa Künz production assistance Leila Vidal-Sephiha Mona Eglsoer, Dayen Tuskan, Katja Weppler, Ananda Schmidt, Siegfried Fuchs, Sophia May, Annette Erismann, Bettina Meister, Christine Rippmann, Flavia Somalvico, Johanna Bajohr, Lilli Unger intern production Lina Hasenfratz surtitles set-up Jakob Gerber, Agnieszka Fietz (Panthea) translation surtitles Charlotte Wührer (Panthea) surtitle operator Isabelle Koch, Holly Werner, Salome Bossard light Marco Schäfer sound Holger Wendt, Tim Huber make-up Anita Brülisauer props Anna Harff, Simone Müller

This performance is made possible by

Meet Nicolas Stemann

Meet Nicolas Stemann

The German theatre director Nicolas Stemann is this year's associate artist, together with singer Angélique Kidjo. During the festival in June, his works Kein Licht (2011/2012/2017), Contre-enquêtes and Der Besuch der alten Dame will be presented.

Read the interview here.