You enter the large hall of the Schiffbau, the most magnificent venue that the Zurich Schauspielhaus has at its disposal, and find yourself in: a kind of medieval market, a children’s birthday party, a lively theater exhibition, on the set of a shoot for something really big. Fantasy always means the creation of world, theatre also, here both go together. Fantasy, because it’s about JRR Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”, theater, because we’re at the Zurich Schauspielhaus. Nicolas Stemann, one of the two artistic directors, directed it himself, together with Stephan Stock from Theater Hora and Florian Loycke from the Berlin puppet theater Das Helmi. Hora is the best, most famous and most inventive theater company for people with cognitive disabilities. The Helmi builds people, animals, plants, everything, mostly out of foam and then plays with it merrily. Together with the people at the Schauspielhaus, this results in the greatest, most exuberant thing that can be experienced in the theater at the moment.
“Giant in Middle-earth” is the name of the evening, which lasts two and a half hours and should easily take up the whole night. What Katrin Nottrodt (stage), Sophie Reble (costumes) and the Institute for Experimental Affairs (media things such as digital worlds on video screens) have installed in the hall is actually gigantic. There are stands for spectators at the two ends, but it is better to be on the go all the time, drop by the forest of columns – a zoo with Helmi foam animals – take a closer look at one of the six play islands or visit the “Tavern zum Crazy Horst”. to get beer. Before it really starts, you have about 20 minutes to orientate yourself, something is beeping somewhere, someone is speaking, a violinist thinks he is Steve Reich and keeps playing the same thing, Frodo (Kay Kysela) and Sam (Maximilian Reichert) greet them very friendly Spectators, Gandalf scurries past, sometimes an orc scares you.
After the evening, the decision not to extend this directorship seems even more puzzling
Can people with cognitive disabilities play orcs, nazguls or dwarves, can they be Smeagol or Gollum (“My darling!”)? Of course they can, otherwise you would take it for granted inclusion and the members of Hora not serious. In addition, among them are the greatest experts on this substance, against whom one is powerless anyway. And they also play, when not in the playhouse, the hero Aragorn, the scallywag Boromir, the wise wizard Gandalf, and when you see Caitlin Friedly as Arwen, you almost forget Liv Tyler, who played the role in the film adaptation. Because Friedly isn’t an ethereal Elf except for her looks, but shits her talkative father, loves very cool Aragorn and has a great desire to spank orcs.
Everything here is planned down to the smallest detail, yet the evening seems infinitely free. One has the impression that a lot is created in the moment, is the – sometimes wonderfully stupid – idea of a second. Also what the hard-working three-man combo does, to which Stemann himself belongs, plays the piano, dances, hits tubular bells or sings a bit (others like Vincent Basse as Legolas can do it much better), while wearing a crazy Elven wig wears on his bare head. When do you ever experience such a multifunctional director?
A huge space for associations emerges from freedom. Of course, images from Peter Jackson’s film trilogy keep racing through your head, but the space of your thoughts is much larger. Except for a tiny moment, the film images are never referred to, it is better to shoot a film yourself on the Uetliberg, Zurich’s local mountain, which then shows a crack squad with a stringent, albeit rather unsuccessful plan in nature. Tolkien’s work, although in the 1960s the favorite subject of a thoroughly hippie-esque reception, is not free from racist and misogynistic tendencies, for which he was also accused. Stemann and his comrades-in-arms solve this very simply: men also play women here, women also men, anyone can play anyone and vice versa, the assertion of the game is the purest act of the theater, and Tolkien himself appears as a character and watches over it contentedly right in his work.
The myth is trimmed, Frodo says right at the beginning that he has no idea about all this, the elves, because the beautiful ones, are fooled the most. But the story is told consistently as you remember it. The ring of evil must go out of the world to save it. It works, but how long does it last? Right at the beginning a choir sings “The world is changing”, you can feel it in the earth, the water, the air. “Lord of the rings” is also an eco-drama, clearly at the latest when the trees, i.e. the Ents, flood the steel city of Isengard, which the most beautiful Helmi trees also like to bring about here.
These are the moments that easily explain why you can still bring the material to the stage 20 years after the world success of the film trilogy. Relaxed you can now join the discussion at the reception. At one point the band plays hard rock to refer to this genre’s interest in myths and the Middle Ages, at other times they yodel because Tolkien’s world has seeped into everyday culture anyway, even in places where everyday life no longer exists. In Ukraine, the Russian invaders are often referred to as orcs, the performance doesn’t allude to that, it would be wrong here too.
In the face of this grandiose celebration of everything that theater (is) can do, the Decision of the Board of Directors of the Schauspielhaus not to extend the directorship of Benjamin von Blomberg and Nicolas Stemann, even stranger. Especially since there is currently no plan as to who will take over the job in a year and a half. At least one year interim is to be expected, because you won’t find a new manager as quickly as the administrators, who are obviously slightly clueless in theater matters, imagine. Meanwhile, independent supporters are getting together to enable the theater in the coming season to produce those productions for which the directorate had asked for an increase in funds that the bean-counting board of directors did not want to approve. The lights in Middle-earth are not out yet.