Women As Animals

Minimal Staging Focuses the The Horrors of Prostitution in The Play by Elfriede Jelinek

On The Town | Alexander Litschka | April 2008

At the Burgtheater-Kasino am Schwarzenbergplatz, it’s quiet and empty on the stage. Almost. On the left side is a pianist at the keyboard, on the right side a small podium with a turned-off lamp and next to it is the actress Sylvie Rohrer sitting on a chair. Another twelve pianos in all including the musicians are squeezed together in a much smaller room on the left side.

Suddenly a loud crash of sound from the pianos interrupts the silence. The musicians start to add humming, in a sing-song which fills up the emptiness. One after another, the musicians start to push their instruments towards the middle and much bigger stage. But instead of spreading out to use the entire space, they just compact in the back.

Sylvie Rohrer, sitting in the shadow, begins talking; it is fast and way too quiet. She is talking to herself and not to the audience, which is focused on her now struggling to understand what she wants to tell us. The chaotic singing condenses into a beautiful melody. This goes on for thirty minutes.

It didn’t matter though; the sound is beautiful and the complete text is printed in the program… We are all pretty disengages from reality somehow; the passage of time seems unimportant.

However, Sylvie Rohrer takes her chair and ends her short and only physical action at the podium. She turns on the lamp, straightens her blue dress to look good in front of us and starts her one hour monologue. The musicians sometimes comment with dark mumbling.

But the last sixty minutes belong to the actress and her fictive opposite.

About Animals is in two parts, loosely linked. The first part can be understood as an inner speech that is a devotion to an absent lover. The second part is the "real thing," the voice of the man talking about how it has to be. He goes straight to the point of what he wants: He orders and pays, and the woman is used – an object. Through telephone conversations between sex-slave trader, the clients and the middleman, we learn how sex is part of our consumer system. However if sexuality were part of that system, it would be more commonly understood as connected to the deprivation of liberty and exploitation, like the production of sports shoes in far away countries.

But the product is not a shoe, of course, it’s a human being and it’s dignity and body. Sex slaves don’t have the freedom to decide. And this where it connects back: because the girl in the first part can freely choose whom to love and with whom to have sexual intercourse. She is not in the hands of criminals.

This text is not easy to read or to act.  Nobel Prize-winning author Elfriede Jelinek creates an extraordinary landscape in language that has its own melody, and the minimal stage composition and the focus on the musicians squeezed so tightly together reflect visually the dark and lonely life of Jelinek’s characters.

After the impressive performance, we can see Sylvie Rohrer’s face, jaded but satisfied, coming to the center of the stage, accepting the standing ovation that brings her back to the now.

Rohrer has been awarded the Nestroy Prize for About Animals. Rightly so.

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