Sunday, October 4, 2015

SOUL OF FIRE


Soul of Fire.

Written by Susanne Wolf. Directed by Alexander Hauer. Designed by Hannes Kaufmann.  Costumes by Moana Stemberger. Performed by Maxi Blaha and Georg Buxhofer on guitar. Street Two. The Street Theatre. October 2-4 2015


 

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins


 
Bertha von Suttner (1843-1945)

This review opens with a confession. I decided to attend the German performance of Soul of Fire, in spite of the fact that I am not fluent in German. I do speak the language and have done since childhood, but I have to admit to having insufficient grasp of the language to fully comprehend the dialogue, but sufficient grasp to understand the fascinating life experiences of pacifist, novelist, ant-war campaigner and Nobel Laureate, the first female recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Maxi Blaha as Bertha von Suttner

Although the life of the remarkable Bertha von Suttner (1843-1914) is highly noteworthy for its significant contribution to international campaigns for peace, it is the striking performance by Maxi Blaha as this fiercely independent and courageous feminist and pacifist icon that persuaded me to attend the presentation for German speakers. Frank McKone has already posted an erudite and informative critique of the performance in English on Canberra Critics Circle, and readers may glean the key events and influences in von Suttner’s life by googling her name or reading her seminal novel ,Die Waffen Nieder” (Lay the Weapons Down). A glance at her biography will reveal the key moments in the production, such as her relationship with her mother, her family’s military background, her engagement to Artur Hohenstein who died at sea, her marriage and misfortunes and her platonic relationship with Alfred Nobel. One will learn of her literary contributions to magazines such as Neue Freie Presse, her lecture tours, her meeting with President Theodore Roosevelt and of course her investiture as the first woman and first Austrian to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Ironically, or perhaps fortunately, we learn of her death from cancer only months prior to the assassination of the Arch Duke Ferdinand and the onset of World War 1.

Georg Buxhofer and Maxi Blaha in Soul of Fire
But Soul of Fire is, as the title suggests, the story of a fiery soul, of a woman determined to fight against civilization’s habitual obsession with war. As Bertha says during the performance, war will continue as long as there exists war loving soldiers. It is the soul of the woman I have come to see, spoken in the language of the protagonist and uttered from the heart. Blaha embodies the spirit and the soul of a woman obsessed and confident in the knowledge that she is special, as told to her by her mother when a child. It is her longing for fame and wealth that drives her passion, and an instinctive understanding of the destructive nature and madness of war. Statuesque in a costume that expresses both the period and beneath the voluminous dress the tights of a contemporary activist, Blaha, accompanied by guitarist, Georg Buxhofer, fills the stage with Bertha’s intelligence, her frustrations, her passions and the courage of her cause until she savours the triumph of success in the publication of her novel and its translation into several languages.


In the intimate setting of Street Two at The Street Theatre, a simple design of hanging drapes, a chair upon a muted carpet and a backdrop of text panels that outline the history of Bertha von Suttner create an atmosphere of drawing room performance. This is an intriguing, informative and dramatically powerful piece of Museum Theatre, inspired by a life and brought to life by writer Susanne Wolf, the engrossing performance of Maxi Blaha and the atmospheric sounds of the guitar from Buxhofer. Director Alexander Hauer has orchestrated the moods from despondency to frustration to elation with deliberate attention to the varying phases of von Suttner’s varied and passionate life. The performance is both educational and theatrically evocative. We learn of Bertha’s longings and of her dedication to her cause as well as the trials and tribulations of her private life. Above all, we learn of a woman, whose achievements and message to the world may have been lost in the passage of time. Museum Theatre exists to bring to life those events and characters who shaped history, for better or for worse, and who have left their footprints in the sands of time as lessons for future generations.   

In this performance, Bertha von Suttner lives again, as a woman who campaigned for peace and dreamt of a vessel in which all were happy and at peace. Her vessel has been cast upon the rocks of history since her death, and we continue to be a world at wars. Museum Theatre, such as this sensitively written, intelligently directed and powerfully performed monologue, is a beacon of hope for the future and a plea to maintain the work and spirit of Bertha von Suttner in her struggle for world peace. Whether performed in English or in German and with songs  interestingly sung in English, Soul of Fire will instruct and inspire, and maybe move the world one step forward towards laying down its arms.

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