MUNICH — When it comes to misery, the families in Greek tragedies really take the cake.
The unhappy offspring of the houses of Atreus and Thebes are some of the oldest protagonists of world drama: They have relived their traumas onstage continually since the fifth century B.C., both in the original plays and in adaptations that draw psychological insights and contemporary relevance from the ancient texts. Throughout Germany this season, ambitious modern reinventions of plays by Sophocles and Aeschylus argue for the universality and timelessness of these works.
Now in his last year as artistic director of the Residenztheater in Munich, Martin Kusej has invited back Ulrich Rasche, the visionary director whose 2017 production of Friedrich Schiller’s “The Robbers” was one of the triumphs of Kusej’s eight-year tenure. And Rasche, 50, has once again brought his distinctive brand of “machine theater,” which transforms the stage into an elaborate mechanical assemblage while treating the actors as cogs in an all-consuming apparatus, this time for a production of “Elektra,” adapted from Sophocles’ tragedy in 1903 by Austrian writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal.
In “The Robbers,” massive, continually rolling treadmills dominated the stage, in a production as dramatically gripping as it was technically ingenious. For this one-act “Elektra,” Rasche, who designs his own productions, has devised an even more sophisticated set. The action takes place on a raised disc that rotates on its axis and on which, safely harnessed, the actors march in a pack, fighting to stay in place as it is raised and lowered, often tilting at dangerous angles. Unfortunately, one walks away dazzled by the mechanics but underwhelmed by the drama.
Much of the problem lies with how Rasche lets the rhythm of the production be dictated by Monika Roscher’s throbbing score, performed live by six capable musicians. “The Robbers” benefited from a pulsating soundtrack by American composer Ari Benjamin Meyers that sustained a mesmerizing intensity over four hours. Sadly, in “Elektra,” a work half as long, both the individual performances and the production as a whole seem enslaved to the loud, droning music.
This is especially true of Katja Bürkle’s raw portrayal of Elektra, the daughter of the murdered king, Agamemnon. Rasche’s ritualistic staging is ill suited to a work of such emotional intensity. Amid the monotonous score and the chanting by the chorus (the director’s invention), Bürkle drools and howls while trudging along the spinning disc. Her performance is impressively feral, but not much more than that.
The center of Hofmannsthal’s version is the showdown between Elektra and her mother, Clytemnestra, who killed her husband when he returned triumphant from the Trojan War. It’s a bloodcurdling scene, but here the plodding tempo set by the music makes it fall flat. Perhaps Rasche hoped to build Hitchcockian tension and suspense. In the absence of a ticking bomb under a table, however, the long scene just stagnates and dies. It is a directorial miscalculation that nearly sinks the whole production.
One of the few bright spots is Lilith Hässle as Elektra’s life-affirming sister, Chrysothemis, a necessary foil to the vengeful title character. Only when Hässle tries to supplicate the imperious Bürkle, honestly pouring out her maternal desires to Elektra’s derision and scorn, does Rasche’s industrially rigorous “machine theater” succeed on an emotional, human level.
The vengeance of the children of Agamemnon is also the theme of “The Oresteia,” the only tragic trilogy passed down to us from antiquity. In Burkhard C. Kosminski’s first season leading the Schauspiel Stuttgart, in southern Germany, he has brought over British director Robert Icke’s acclaimed four-hour version for its German-language premiere. The handsome 2015 production, originally seen at the Almeida Theater in London, where Ickes is associate director, has arrived in Stuttgart with only minor changes to Hildegard Bechtler’s minimalistic brick-and-glass set.
Over the course of a long but gripping evening, the fall of the house of Atreus plays out on a sleekly modern set, which transforms from a suburban home to a courtroom in the cycle’s final installment, “The Eumenides.” As the matricidal Orestes reconstructs the bloody events leading to his trial, a clerk presents the evidence to the court, where it is dutifully relayed in print on an electronic console.
Despite the contemporary relocation, Icke’s version remains faithful to Aeschylus. To make the plays work in a modern context, the trilogy is mostly stripped of its religious trappings. Without the context of the Hellenic belief system, the faith that compels Agamemnon to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia comes across as superstition, although Icke clearly lays out the moral stakes in sacrificing a child to win a war.
In this version, the character who comes most clearly into focus is Clytemnestra, the mourning queen, who will take revenge on Agamemnon only to be killed by her son. German actress Sylvana Krappatsch ensures that the focus stays on her, thanks to a courageous performance that is ferocious, grief-stricken and sexually charged. Matthias Leja is her worthy partner, and later opponent, as a severe yet uncommonly sympathetic Agamemnon.
The others in the 12-member cast have less to do. As Orestes, Peer Oscar Musinowski looks panic-stricken and flummoxed as he works through the traumatic memories and defends himself at his final trial, while Anne-Marie Lux seems positively chipper as Elektra compared with Bürkle in Munich.
Icke’s meticulous direction is full of disconcerting, often freaky, touches, including a spooked Iphigenia (Aniko Sophie Huber and Salome Sophie Roller alternate in the role) singing the most unsettling version of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” you’ll ever hear while clutching a stuffed bunny. Icke is also fond of cinematic touches that recall David Lynch during climactic moments, such as the frosted glass dividers that turn transparent at the blink of an eye, accompanied by flashing light and a zapping noise.
Between Hofmannsthal’s fin-de-siècle reworking of “Elektra” and Icke’s 21st century update of Aeschylus lies Bertolt Brecht’s “The Antigone of Sophocles,” which premiered in 1948.
In what was his first postwar work for the stage, Brecht turned his attention to Sophocles’ tragedy about filial duty, civil disobedience and the tyranny of the state. Based on an 1804 translation by the early German romantic poet Friedrich Hölderlin, Brecht’s concentrated version was intended as an indictment of the German bourgeoisie who had embraced Hitler. Brecht scrubbed the play clean of references to Greek deities and shifted the emphasis from one family’s personal tragedy to the downfall of a society that embraces a totalitarian system.
On the small stage of the Berliner Ensemble, the company in Berlin founded by Brecht in 1949, Veit Schubert directs a stripped-down production of this “Antigone” starring students at the Ernst Busch University of Performing Arts. The nine actors clamber on and around a sloping stage that, over the course of the 90-minute performance, is progressively assembled from squares locking noisily into a large frame. (Wiebke Bachmann designed the striking modular set.)
The cast — all in their early- to mid-20s — perform with sweaty determination, if a touch too much studied intensity. A notable exception is Aniol Kirberg, who plays the blind seer Tiresias as a cheeky balladeer, plucking out bluesy tunes on a variety of instruments and annoying the tyrant Creon by parroting his pronouncements in song.
The performances in the 200-seat theater are mostly sold out, which is a vote both for the next generation of Berlin thespians and for these foundational works of world literature. Surely directors and playwrights like Hofmannsthal, Brecht and Icke will not be the last to mine them for fresh insight into our values, our morals, our fears and our passions.
“Elektra”:Directed by Ulrich Rasche. München Residenztheater, through April 24.
“The Oresteia”: Directed by Robert Icke. Schauspiel Stuttgart, through May 27.
“The Antigone of Sophocles”: Directed by Veit Schubert. Berliner Ensemble, through April 2.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.