Saturday, October 3, 2015

Soul of Fire by Susanne F Wolf

Maxi Blaha as Bertha von Suttner
Photo by Peter Rigaud

Soul of Fire by Susanne F Wolf.  Presented by The Street in association with the Austrian Embassy, Canberra, at The Street Two, 8pm October 2-4, 2015, plus German language performance 4pm October 4.

Performed by Maxi Blaha as Bertha von Suttner with live guitarist, Georg Buxhofer
Director - Alexander Hauer; designer - Hannes Kaufmann; production, idea - Maxi Blaha; costumes - Moana Stemberger.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
October 2

In 1889, Bertha von Suttner had published her anti-war novel Lay Down Your Arms. After that, she was drawn into the international peace movement. She undoubtedly exercised considerable influence on Alfred Nobel, whom she had known since 1876, when he later decided to include the Peace Prize as one of the five prizes mentioned in his will. In 1905, she was awarded the [fifth] Peace Prize, the first woman to receive such a distinction. Her supporters strongly felt that the prize had come too late, since she had had such an influence on Nobel.

"The Nobel Peace Prize 1901-2000". Nobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2014. Web. 2 Oct 2015. http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/themes/peace/lundestad-review/index.html

For a more detailed biography see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bertha_von_Suttner

Bertha von Suttner 1873, aged 30
 Susanne Wolf’s 55 minute monologue is written in the first-person as Bertha, born in 1843, covering from her childhood as Countess Kinsky of Austrian parents in Prague to her death in 1914, only two months before the World War began which she had so desperately tried to prevent.

The writing is daunting for an actor, not just in presenting a complex life story as a consistent character developing from a child to a feisty septuagenarian, but finding a suitable style and manner in performance.  Maxi Blaha succeeds in revealing to us both the public and private sides of a woman of great significance in the history of the peace movement, without pretension yet with a sense of great respect.

Incorporated into the performance is beautiful delicate guitar music which Georg Buxhofner plays as if it were improvised in unison with the mood of the story’s episodes and Bertha’s ever-changing feelings.  Silences, on the part of the guitar and the actor, often make us listen more deeply.  The performers’ respect for their subject is passed over to us, watching from the future.

The setting is simple.  Dark curtaining, information panels in German and English, a plush chair in the centre which might have come from an upper-class residence.  A museum exhibit, which is inhabited by the guitarist, with a small-scale amplifier, seated partly facing away from the audience, playing softly, slow notes, perhaps wistful.  The living exhibit enters from the shadow, peruses some printed sheets which she scatters around her as she sits.  Her mother calls, the child Bertha responds, and bit by bit we see and hear figures from her life speaking and see her responding, as well as see her taking the initiative, speaking privately and publicly.

Bertha von Suttner 1896
There are some significant episodes – when she is 30 and falls truly in love with Arthur von Suttner, when she speaks and writes to Alfred Nobel, when she is published in the Neue Freie Presse, when she discovers her husband’s dalliance with his young niece, when her husband dies, when she is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, when she reaches her end.  She hands out her major speech, and we read:

Hence it is necessary that wherever proponents of peace exist, they confess themselves publically as such and work for the cause to the best of their ability.  My challenge goes out to all those who wish to join us: send in your name and address.

If ever there was a theatre presentation relevant in our times, that speech says it all.  Though perhaps the strict social hierarchy of European nations which she had to face may have levelled somewhat, many of the conflicts in countries she mentions, from Russia to the Balkans and across Europe, worsened in the century following her death, and now are in contention again through North Africa and the Middle East.  Just today there are reports of the rise of the “Freedom” party on the far right of politics in Bertha’s home country – Austria – as the masses try to escape from the South to the North, from the East to the West.  The Austro-Hungarian  and the Ottoman Empires might as well still be here.

But at least Bertha’s work, along with that of other Nobel Peace Prize winners and of untold unsung activists, has maintained the Peace Movement, and led to the tentative beginnings of world-wide political negotiations instead of an automatic recourse to war, in the United Nations Organisation after the worst paroxysm in World War II.  We may have a long way yet to go, but without Bertha von Suttner’s words of 1891:

Would it not be simpler to lay down the fuses voluntarily, in other words to disarm?  To apply international law – merge the divided groups in a single group and found a union of the civilised nations of Europe!  Tiny is the minority that still wishes for war.  Immeasurably vast are the masses who yearn for peace – not a truce maintained out of fear but a secure and guaranteed peace.

we would not have come as far as we have.

Soul of Fire  is a message of hope, common sense and reason, presented in a performance of dignity and respect.

Bertha von Suttner 1906
Nobel Peace Prize 1905














 

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