Zauberland review – after horrors, a feeling of 'so what' remains

Linbury theatre, London
Crimp, Foccroulle, Mitchell and Schumann combine their considerable forces to tell a shocking story, inspired by the Syrian conflict, that fails to have the impact it should

A young, pregnant woman flees the violence of Aleppo, leaving her family and husband behind. She settles in Cologne, where she can pick up the threads of her career as an opera singer, and where her daughter is born. Sometime later, she dreams of singing Schumann’s song cycle Dichterliebe, and that performance becomes entwined with memories of her life in Syria and the horrors of her escape.

That’s the starting point for Zauberland, composer Bernard Foccroulle and writer Martin Crimp’s “Encounter with Schumann’s Dichterliebe”, staged by Katie Mitchell. First seen in Paris in the spring, the production is touring Europe and the US with soprano Julia Bullock as the protagonist. It is a strange, unsatisfactory piece.

Foccroulle has written 16 songs to Crimp’s often banal English texts in a neo-expressionist, post-Schoenbergian style, complementing the Heine settings of Schumann’s sublime cycle. The Schumann is performed first, with the narrative flipping between past and present, between what the woman has left behind and her new life with her daughter in Zauberland – the magic land of the west epitomised by Schumann’s romanticism.

Four actors (one female, three male) flesh out the scenario, taking the other parts in the woman’s story, moving her around, constantly undressing and dressing her. Shrouded corpses are wheeled on; a bride who dances across the stage is later seen being doused in petrol; snow falls at one point; display cases containing naked Barbie dolls appear at another. The performance is immaculate – Mitchell’s stagecraft is as precise as usual – but given the subject matter it is almost shockingly unmoving.

And, despite Bullock’s tirelessly fine performance, Cédric Tiberghien’s cool, elegant account of Schumann’s accompaniments and Foccroulle’s dense, demanding piano writing, a feeling of “So what?” remains.

• At the Linbury theatre, London, until 18 October.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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