No exit from Lake Constance
How best to describe Peter Handke’s The Ride Across Lake Constance, produced by One World Theatre and performed at Mandala in Kathmandu?
The audience sits quietly in a dark room, when light creeps in slowly and falls upon three people on stage, dressed in what appear like some daydream of an indeterminate past. They speak in turns of a legendary horseman who rides across the frozen Lake Constance without knowing. This could be 1795, 1830, 1880 or 1963. They continue: And when he learns what he did, what he risked unwittingly and accomplished, he dies of fright.
The horseman died not from any real cause, but wholly under the crushing weight of an unfamiliar realisation. He could not comprehend what he had done. Lake Constance, you see, is the third largest freshwater lake by surface area (536 km2) in Central and Western Europe and has the maximum depth of 251m. For reference, Rara Lake in Karnali has the maximum depth of 167m.
As the narration unfolds, the horseman rides down the aisle of the theatre past rows of the bemused audience, and sits on a chair, arms crossed before him. So far: the story seems coherent, but then again, it has barely been few minutes into the play.
The three characters leave at the end of the prologue, to be replaced by two more. The room is elegant, with a staircase at the back. A large painting of a peacock is bordered by an art-deco door frame. Another painting hangs next to it: most likely of the eponymous Lake Constance. A giant chessboard piece, rook by the looks of it, sits on one side, and immediately across from it stands a coat-hanger.
Emil Jannings dozes off on a chair while a person of ambiguous gender identity, wearing a hoop petticoat, vacuums and removes dust covers. Enters Heinrich George and soon he and Jannings begin talking.
What is the conversation about? Now, that is an interesting question, especially as The Ride Across Lake Constance, in all fairness and right off the bat, is all dialogue and no straight plot. Jannings and George talk about rognons flambés, about semantics and morphologies, about dreams and desires. At one point, the discussion turns to rings and their round shapes.
Then a few moments later the three people return, each clad in flowing garbs of aristocracy, military and sensuality. There is a frenetic exchange of kinks. Violence is confronted. The man shows a magic trick. Everyone runs about, then sings and dances, and never stops talking.
“Words, words, words,” said Hamlet in Shakespeare’s play, and that is exactly how this play sounds. While there is no direct reference to Hamlet’s apparent nihilism in Lake Constance (although existentialism is a major theme here) another Shakespeare character does indeed pop by when Jannings quotes The Comedy of Errors:
Am I in earth, in heaven, or in hell?
Sleeping or waking, mad or well-advised?
Known unto these, and to myself disguised:
Am I transformed, master, am not I?
Perhaps, one could also call Lake Constance a comedy of errors. There is one scene where Tweedledum and Tweedledee appear – mistaken identity, says one, jumping too quickly – but its punchline is the audience as much as are the characters, who then continue to banter profusely.
But the errors in the play are not how one understands mistakes. These characters, named after real actors, play a game which constantly oscillates between the overwhelming realms of meaning and non-meaning. They wear and take off masks, confusing each other, the audience, and above all: themselves.
Props, when they change hands, also change their connotations – which is best reflected in the fact that the stage stays the same throughout, like an objective reality. Only the people come in and leave, only the people move.
Each dialogue opens massive freight trains of ontological unease. Consciousness is called to question, as are memories and dreams. The characters, themselves reminiscent of Sartre’s foursome in hell, recount histories that may or may not have happened. They play with each other, act jealous, violent, naughty and nasty, all the while wondering the same question: Am I dreaming or am I speaking?
Then the audience asks in turn: Where is the line? The viewers and the view stare at each other, paused, and something unspeakable and inexplicable transpires in between.
Kavita Srinivasan, who plays Elisabeth Bergner, gives a striking analogy for this exchange: “When you are in a mirror maze, a reflection you see sees you in turn.” This makes us wonder who we are and what we are doing, she adds, lending to the cycle of trying to give our lives and ourselves meaning.
But no one meaning will ever satisfy the multifaceted thirst of our lives and experiences. And often the rules of rationality clash with inherent irrationalities. “There is so much madness,” Srinivasan says, “one must acknowledge it without judgement.”
Deborah Merola’s direction is impeccable, which brings out the best from her actors. The ensemble of Srinivasan, Rajkumar Pudasaini, Aashant Sharma, Bijay Tamrakar, Ranjana Bhattarai, Saroj Aryal and Sandeep Dangol engages in a collaborative fever dream of abstract acting and playacting, like games of Truth or Dare, while some slurred speeches add to the stupor – all without missing a beat.
As such, the odd and exasperating Lake Constance is only so at the outset. In fact, beneath the grotesque symposium of phenomenological quandary, the avant-garde play is wildly entertaining. The audience watches compulsively, as the characters gaze in and out, much to an absurdist delight.
THE RIDE ACROSS LAKE CONSTANCE
by Peter Handke,
directed by Deborah Merola
Mandala Theatre Nepal
Final show on Sunday, 29 May 2022 at 5:30pm
Book your ticket here.