Towards an Anatomy of Images
Review of the play Anatomy of a Snowfall, by Sara Stridsberg. Translated by Leslie Damasceno.
Abstract: This article examines a production of Swedish playwright Sara Strindberg’s Anatomy of a Snowfall (Dissekering av ett snöfall), staged by Bim Verdier in São Paulo, Brazil in 2015, in terms of the play’s proposals and the production’s relationship to several other plays staged in the city at the same time (two adaptations of Strindberg’s Miss Julie and one of Chekhov’s Three Sisters.) Issues dealt with involve gender as raised by the central character of the play in question, Queen Christina of Sweden, as well as formal staging strategies that determine the production of images and how these are received in the viewer’s imagination.
Keywords: Swedish drama, feminine gender, theatrical reception
The Bim Verdier production of Sara Stridberg’s play Anatomy of a Snowfall, which counted with support from cultural institutions in Sweden, premiered January 2015 at SESC Belenzinho. However, we can begin our analysis by situating this production in context of several related projects that preceded it, as issues brought up in these other productions help us think about the piece in question.
The production was realized as part of an international exchange between Brazil and Sweden, with meetings and rehearsals held in both Uppsala and São Paulo. In the creative team, the director (who was also one of the actors) is of Swedish origin, but lives in Brazil. The other actors are Brazilian and the technical team (responsible for scenery, lighting, costumes and videos), Swedish.
The play fictionalizes the story of Queen Christina, a theme explored by other Swedish writers, as in the case of August Strindberg’s play Cristina. Incidentally, the actress who plays the protagonist, Nicole Cordery, has done significant research about the Swedish writer. Besides being the subject of her master’s thesis from Paris 3 – Sorbonne Nouvelle (directed by Jean-Pierre Sarrazac), Cordery has put on and acted in a number of productions from Strindberg texts or adaptations, plays about him or related to his dramaturgy. The most significant may have been the French production Strindbergman, which brought together two of Sweden’s cultural giants: Strindberg’s play The Stronger (with scenes performed on video) in dialogue with the staging of Ingmar Bergman’s film script for Persona, directed by Marie Dupleix. This production was staged in São Paulo and Rio as part of the year of “France in Brazil.”
Cordery was the curator of the Strindberg exhibition in São Paulo, an event held in September and October of 2012 to commemorate the centenary of the author’s death, with activities in several units of the SESC/São Paulo: Belenzinho, Bom Retiro, Ipiranga and Santo Amaro. Cordery participated in a staged reading, directed by Felipe Vidal, that I was able to watch – this being my first contact with the historical character of the Swedish monarch. The event also gave me the opportunity to participate in a debate on Strindberg’s Miss Julia with, among other artists, actress Julia Bernat and the director Christiane Jatahy, whose play Julia was one of the plays taking part in the Theatre Exhibition.
In 2015, two months after having seen Anatomy of a Snowfall, and while preparing my reflections on it, I reviewed two plays by Christiane Jatahy, Julia and E se elas fossem para Moscou? (“What if they went to Moscow?”). I was also able to see a peculiar production of the classic Strindberg, Miss Julie, directed by Katie Mitchell. All three plays were presented in the context of MITsp – Mostra Internacional de Teatro de São Paulo (International Theatre Exhibition of São Paulo), precisely because of the affinity of their proposals: they were created from a dialogue between theater and cinema, although with very different operations, different intentions and notions of theatricality. But interestingly, Katie Mitchell’s Miss Julie also proved to be a kind of “Strindbergman” since it staged a film set of Miss Julie (from the point of view of another female character), producing a film with film language very similar to Bergman’s. These productions became hopelessly tangled in my mind and although the disparities between them are greater than the similarities, I could not seem to extricate myself from the common matters regarding them. Thus, I propose to write this critique – series of notes – also as a means to understand what can be said about Anatomy of a Snowfall that relates to these other productions.
To conclude this introduction, I should mention that the opportunity to see Anatomy of a Snowfall again was frustrated due to the cancellation of the plays’ subsequent run in the Tribunal de São Paulo theatre space – an act of censorship on the part of the São Paulo Court of Justice, which demanded that artists cut out certain texts and scenes from the production. This unfortunate episode is symptomatic of the reactionary wave that seems to be gaining ground in Brazil. The artists chose to cancel the run, a gesture that I fully support, although with deep regret. For now, the next opportunity will only be in the Stockholm Fringe Festival (Stoff), to take place in October 2015. Among hundreds of artist entries from over fifty countries, Anatomy of a Snowfall was chosen for both the official selection programming as well as for the competitive selection program.
Getting back to Sara Stridsberg and Queen Christina. Stridsberg always writes about female characters – as the director tells us in her program text. This is also the first text of the author staged in Brazil. The program notes also gives her account of what issues arise when writing about a historical personage (Queen Christina) who has been the subject of such a widely read (and re-read) celebrity such as Strindberg, who also happens to be her countryman. She stakes out a clear and contemporaneous position, and lets you perceive, in comparison to Strindberg’s concept of theatre, the imaginative leaps that contemporary theater makes regarding the very idea of dramaturgy.
First of all, I’m interested in how theater looks at history: when art, with its tools for fictional construction, addresses this narrative that is committed to the truth. The tension established between truth and fiction, memory and creation, commitment and freedom, is a fertile place for thought. With regard to dealing with history, I get the impression that the author is more interested in producing images than simply making a historical drama. Indeed, Stridsberg’s Cristina is an image produced by a gaze that reflects back to the past, while maintaining all the cargo of the present.
According to Nestor Correia, who signs the translation along with the director, Cristina is an interesting personality: She maintained the Dell’Arcadia Academy in Rome, a center for political discussions where only single people were admitted; corresponded with Father Antonio Vieira in discussions about chastity and eroticism; was called ‘The Cultural Queen,’ for her broad investments in culture; She acted against the burning of witches; She abdicated the monarchy and left Sweden, taking with her what she wanted. Correia even affirms that Cristina Vasa became a LGBT icon – which is attested to by the gender issues raised in the play that I will analyze, at least with regard to the thematic approach. And it seems that the contemporary debate on gender continues to update the story of Queen Christina.
The drama reveals a clear epic intention. The first textual lines present a place, a landscape, a situation, but without committing to proper names and dates. The characters of the play have names representative of their conditions and their roles in the plot: the Philosopher (Daniel Ortega); Power (André Warrior); the Dead King (Renato Caldas); the Girl-King (Nicole Cordery). Other characters have names such as Maria Eleonora (Bim Verdier), Belle (Rita Grillo) and Luve (Daniel Costa) – the latter two making direct reference to beauty and love. The staging corroborates the epic proposal when a model is placed on stage, manipulated by the “manipulator” character, Power. Power delivers his lines in the first person plural in a manner that marks him not just as representative of the collective, but as a “collective being,” making it clear that he represents not as an historical subject but rather as an allegory.
In her first dialogue, the Girl-King sets forth her fundamental condition: She will not marry. This was a radical option for a woman in the seventeenth century and more radical even for the heir to a throne. It forefronts the character’s inadequacy as to the gender and place of power she occupies.
The text is purposely expository. The dialogues are informative: they report facts of the past, present conditions, all is said and spoken so as not to leave gaps in the narrative. The drama makes use of perfectly recognizable codes. Polarizations are clearly drawn, direct, without shadow zones, with the exception of Cristina, the Girl-King, who is a black hole. Everything else is simple, in order that her complexity can be appreciated to the fullest.
Regarding direction, the choices are succinct and timely. The decision to put the scenic area between two audiences, facing each other, shows the desire to leave the visual field of the spectacle transparent, porous. Another set design option punctuates the staging concept: snow falling continuously for the nearly two hours of spectacle marks the inexorability of time’s flow and the by no way solar environment of the historical context. The way in which the actors play their characters and how they address the audience is simple but not naive or underdeveloped. They make an assembled composition, constructed, and yet retain a necessary degree of spontaneity. There are certain actors that employ a calculated humor, designed not to make you laugh, but to set the mood of those who have more to tell than they can, or will, actually speak. I see this somewhat cynical approach, which is also specifically seductive, more clearly in some actors’ interpretations, such as André Renato Guerreiro and Caldas, but also in the work of Daniel Ortega, who provides great moments in the play with a philosophy class on what a Queen should be, as well as in the scene where the character comments on royalty as an anomaly.
From the first moments, gender is presented as a problematic issue. The Girl-King is a total mismatch in a world where each one has to be sure of his or her place. She rejects all assignments of place, but not the place: She affirms herself as King, sovereign, but rejects certain tasks, such as war; marriage as a social institution or policy; and especially motherhood. A royal family depends on continuity. Having children is a must. “A royal child is state property,” says Power. The body of the queen as well.
The following dialogue between her and the Philosopher seems to summarize the problem:
PHILOSOPHER: You don’t want to give birth?
GIRL-KING: I’d rather kill myself.
PHILOSOPHER: And you do not want to go to war?
GIRL-KING: That’s not for me. I prefer to hunt.
PHILOSOPHER: Your body is not a responsibility of the State and you are not interested in expanding the kingdom? Correct?
GIRL-KING: You understood correctly.
PHILOSOPHER: I see. So, here is the consequential question. If the king’s task is war and the queen’s task is to ensure succession, what then would be your task?
(Short pause. The Girl-king looks up.)
PHILOSOPHER: The conclusion has to be that you are neither king nor queen.
(The Girl-king gets up quickly.)
GIRL-KING: Thank you. Cut the light on the philosopher.
[This last command is curtly spoken as the Girl-King makes a gesture toward the control box.]
Although it may seem an outdated idea, even today we live according to the premise that the body is state property. In this sense there is no distance between Cristina Vasa, a Swedish monarch of the seventeenth century, and women who die doing clandestine abortions in twenty-first century Brazil. Here we see the condition of women in a historical perspective – and the farther in history and on the map we go, it seems even more insane that the same mentality guides thought today.
Girl-King takes her stand: “I’m not the type who takes pleasure with men, it’s not my nature.” It’s worth signaling the Portuguese translation here: “Não é do meu gênero,” which produces a clever pun on the word ‘gender,’ or ‘gênero’ in Portuguese. Using “Não é do meu gênero” (‘not my genre/gender’ loosely translated), in the sense of “not my nature” brings up the question of gender itself. But what’s natural in a gender? The mother, Maria Eleonora asks what, then, is she, arguing that she is “something we do not understand,” further wondering whether it is not the state apparatus that has hardened her daughter. Androgyny, homosexuality, questioning the places of power – all are current issues in discussions regarding gender. I believe that the radical positioning in problematizing the feminine in Anatomy of a Snowfall comes from the emphasis on the denial of motherhood – commonly taken as the alpha and omega of being a woman, being what’s most natural for women, that which completes and makes a woman a real woman. Women who don’t want motherhood are deemed unnatural. In a scene where the daughter gets tips for good hunting, the Dead King warns: “Leave the barren ones alone” and then explains: “Infertile adult females that go about the forest without recreating.” The infertile woman is an anomaly to be discarded. This is where Stridsberg’s text and this production seem unique.
Girl-King retorts to the Dead King: “The act of giving birth is barbaric. The mere thought makes my organs hurt. A raptor ripping my heart, liver, spleen out, and then flying off. That’s not for me.” But this does not only appear as part of the Girl-King’s discourse, the drama has other strategies to create images that collaborate with the narrative. There are two times when Belle, the one with whom the Girl-King has a sexual and possibly romantic relationship, describes images of dead babies, as another way to underscore this impossibility from the protagonist’s point of view and desires.
On the first occasion that this happens, Belle tells a story that only afterwards do we understand to refer to the birth of the very Girl-King. After a nightmare, hallucinations and memories of dire predictions, the King awakes to receive his heir presented to him as a stillbirth, “the child seems dead:” but it was just a girl. On the second occasion, at a later moment in the play, Belle recounts the death of her own daughter, describing details of the signs of failure in the newborn child’s bodily functions. Belle’s reaction to maternity is one of pure death. The Girl-King, herself, was a dead baby. The Dead King says that he found her dead on the floor of the hallway (the mother would have thrown her to the ground because she had expected to have a boy) and brought her back to life. A mythical narrative for a tragic character.
Keeping these questions in mind, the relationship of the protagonist with childhood, in general, with maternity and the manipulation of life, as with war, seems to materialize in a scene in which the Girl-King plays with her dolls. It was this moment in the production that made me see the complexity of the image of a Queen Cristina as created by Nicole Cordery. The scene follows Belle’s narrative of the birth of Cristina – mentioned above – and precedes her father’s death scene. The actress is in a corner of the scenic area, sitting on the floor playing with some dolls. The delicacy with which she raises the skirt of the doll, gradually doubling back the fabric, how her finger passes over with indifference what would be the vagina and the anus of the doll, then stages an anal rape of the doll by a soldier puppet. The actress enacts the puppet’s celebratory act with a sincere expression of amusement. Then, right after, she becomes violent with the doll. She yanks out her hair and makes another doll tear out its straw guts, by this second doll’s hand. She dissects the violated doll. The authorial dimension of Cordery’s acting appears in this sequence, a force that constructs – dissects – an anatomy of possible images for the character of Queen Cristina.
The dissection is a violent way of trying to understand a process in which you need to get your hands dirty to quench your own curiosity. To create a role dealing with a violent, cruel character presupposes to a certain extent that one “dissect” oneself, go inward to survey the violence, dark desires and pleasure with cruelty that may lurk there. The times when that violence is best revealed in performance are also those in which the cruelty seems more commonplace, as entertainment for someone who thinks of it as a condition of natural law, of blood. From memory, it seems that the actress looks to the audience in precisely these passages. But this memory may be a product of my own imagistic reception, I do not know if in fact it happens during the production. Even with the text of the play in hand and being able to review the recorded video of the play, this memory remains imprinted in me, impossible to correct.
And here is where I wish to discuss Anatomy of a Snowfall in relation to Christiane Jatahy’s Julia and Katie Mitchell’s Miss Julie, this triangle of productions on women based on Swedish texts. I intend to be brief, perhaps elaborating on the subject in another text. Here, I wish to refer to the capacity to produce images and the nature of these images as they guide their respective productions.
About Miss Julie, we can say that the play produces ready-made images. On stage, there is a movie set with everything you need where actors, cameras and sound people, in short, a whole team, moves around in the making of a film, which is edited as part of the production. The film is projected on a screen high above the stage, above this setting and this huge choreography. In many instances one does not see much beyond what is projected. In other words: the film produced and projected there is a film – there is no cinematic language that intersects or dialogues with theatrical language. The images in the film are perfectly resolved, nothing is lacking. Some images of the film are symbolic, metaphorical, as in Strindberg’s play, of which one can be sure that one thing will signify another.
In Christiane Jatahy’s Julia, the film does not “solve” anything because, paradoxically, there is nothing to be resolved. The film language and theatrical language are there to mutually entangle, trip up and problematize each other. The filmed image, which has beauty and refinement and even a dose of spectacle, is not projected simply as a complement to scenic action. Rather, the film footage in Julia is like pieces of filmed narrative conversing with pieces of live storytelling. This operation produces sparks, triggering images that will be created by the viewer’s imagination, as well as in the visual scenic realm. Moreover, it seems that there is risk involved in shooting spontaneous footage projected live. The film angles and incursions were planned and rehearsed, but risk imbues the production with the possible thrill of pure chance, adding another layer to the theatre-film conversation.
This, then, is radically different from Mitchell’s work, which resolves and delivers meaning. In Miss Julie, there is everything to please a cultured theatre public: that which is easily identified as quality. Quality, in the prosaic language of spectator-consumers and critics-formers-of-consumption, a finished and polished production worthy or Hollywood – i.e., a production totally lacking in any edge, where the audience’s perspective is always lead, guided to a pre-determined point. In other words, a production in which we don’t see the play “raise its head up,” as Roland Barthes would put it. And even when there are different possible sources, the passage between them does not even any empty or ragged space for interpretation. It’s almost like it did not matter if the audience is 1,500 spectators or 25. It’s all given, packaged. It is beautiful, ingenious and of impressive virtuosity, but there is only the final product. There is no glimpse of process.
Although it’s not possible, here, to go into a full analysis of E se elas fossem para Moscou?, it’s worth noting that in Jatahy’s innovative adaptation of the Chekhov play, the division into two spectacles – film and play – further enhances this creative exchange of imaginaries: the stage production in filmed as enacted; and the film version (which obviously will capture and accentuate different aspects or moments) of the stage production is shown separately. One can see the film version immediately after the stage production, or at another opportunity; or see one film version before seeing a distinct stage production. Hence, in my view, the importance of seeing the two parts (filmic and scenic): the relationship with the images gains breath and power. There is a sensation of lack, of incompleteness, which promotes the viewer to imagine, to collaborate in the production of images: a complex relationship (in the best sense) that enriches viewer participation.
What happens in Anatomy of a Snowfall is that the images are not delivered up to the spectator. There is a dryness in the visual spectacle, an economy of reduction in the staging that works as a leaky structure plotting out how the actors interact with it, the text and the audience. Colors are not filled in, the contours are not defined. The scene is always tearing, ripping itself apart, opening up so that the audience’s eye, perspective, can enter in. The images need to be produced. This is an audience-production interchange that is not conquered by virtuoso performances, but perhaps by a combination of readiness and presence that maintains the scene in a constant state of alert. The relationship between actors and spectators is thus always in transit, in the act of being produced.
This vital idea of theater, which welcomes chance and spontaneous interaction, interests and intrigues me.
Daniele Avila Small is a PhD student in Performing Arts at the Universidade Federal do Estado do Rio de Janeiro (Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro / UniRio). She holds a Master’s Degree in the Social History of Culture from PUC-Rio and a Bachelor’s Degree in Theatre Theory from UniRio. She is author of O crítico ignorante – uma negociação teórica meio complicada (7Letras, 2015), and the editor and founder of the electronic magazine Questão de Crítica.
*The article was originally published in Portuguese and is available at: http://www.questaodecritica.com.br/2015/05/para-dissecar-as-imagens/
Stridsberg, Sara: Medealand och andra pjäser. Stockholm: Albert Bonniers förlag, 2012.
See the blogspot “Dissecar uma Nevasca,” accessed throughhttp://anevasca.blogspot.com.br/ for information and journal criticism of the production in Portuguese. (Accessed, September 26 2015).
Trans. note. SESC: Serviço Social de Comércio (Social Service for Commerce). Some of Brazil’s best equipped and most well attended theatre spaces are housed in SESC complexes in the major Brazilian cities. The SESC has a policy of offering theatre at popular prices, with a ceiling comparable to some US $ 12-15, half-priced for seniors, students and SESC associates.
Trans. note: Father António Vieira was a Portuguese born Jesuit philosopher and writer, who prosyletized and lived in Brazil. Viera’s fiery sermons are still widely read and taught in Brazil.
Note: The text has not yet been published in Portuguese. All quotes in these reflections are taken from my notes on the production and/or the play text, lent to me by the producer.
In his essay, “Escrever a leitura,” published in O rumor da lingua, Roland Barthes discusses the concept of “levantando a cabeça [raising the head], something that happens “not because of disinterest, but, to the contrary, for the flux of ideas, associations, excitations.” (Barthes, Roland. O rumor da língua. Martins Fontes: São Paulo, 2004. p.26. Translated by Mário Laranjeira, Le bruissement de la langue, Éditions de Seuil, 1984.
[English text titles: Writing reading in The Rustle of Language.]