Goethe’s best-known novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, finds elegantly concentrated expression in this short one-man performance. Don’t be put off by the surtitled German: the production makes an immensely influential work accessible, and Pascal Groß is riveting as Werthers.
Though I understand a little German, for extended periods watching the play was like listening to carefully-inflected gibberish.
It’s not an easy role. The Sorrows of Young Werther tells of his agonising infatuation with Lotte, an engaged (and later married) village beauty. In the course of the playlet, Groß’s solitary performance must span rapture, rage, anxiety, and depression. In the wake of innumerable well-known treatments of doomed love, sustaining believability forms an added challenge. Groß’s unqualified success in these regards testifies to his talent and conviction.
The State Theatre of Lower Austria production, directed by Caroline Welzl, has toured schools across Austria. This may help explain its inventive use of space. At one point Groß stumbles to the back of the studio and slumps in the technician’s chair, playing with the light controls with an air of total dejection. Elsewhere he addresses particular audience members, singling out yours truly as Albert, Lotte’s eventual husband and in one scene yelling at me from inches away. (I corpsed.) These come across not as gratuitous breaks with convention but effective theatrical devices, ways to counteract the potentially anaesthetising formality of the language.
“Was ist der mensch?” This is the question Groß asks again and again in the performance: what is man? It’s curiously appropriate in a play witnessed from across a linguistic divide — an experience with an almost anthropological flavour. Though I understand a little German, for extended periods watching the play was like listening to carefully-inflected gibberish. Yet seeing a performance in another language is surprisingly engaging. I found myself unusually attentive to gestures and expressions, to modulations of the voice. Psychologists tell us that up to 80% of meaning is communicated non-verbally. This must be untrue of theatre, but even so, Werther affords a practical, fascinating litmus test. Such unexpected upsides to the play, for me, more than compensated for the occasional awkwardness of having to switch gazes between Groß and the projected translations.
One more thing must be mentioned. On occasion the subtitles appeared to be truncated relative to the length of Groß’s pronouncements, and one longer chunk in particular seemed to be missing. It’s impossible to say whether these were one-off mistakes made by the assistant or issues with the production itself.