In his production of his play “Marta from the Blue Hill” Alvis Hermanis invites audiences to a Latvian Last Supper, yet says uncharacteristically little.
For one magic moment, time stands still. Yet then, as the characteristic melody to Céline Dion’s international hit “My Heart Will Go On” begins to sound, we find ourselves not on the railing of the Titanic, but in Marta’s parlor at a long wooden table. There, twelve people, a motley crew of personalities, have gathered together to be healed by “Blue Hill Marta.”
In his play, Latvian author and director Alvis Hermanis traces the legend of a clairvoyant woman from the “blue mountains” who lived from 1908 until 1992 and relieved the suffering of others on a daily basis. By researching the biographies of others, whether it be the story of Marta the legendary healer of simply that of his own father, Hermanis has found a way – as in earlier productions – to create a unique dramatic style characterized by strong narrative tendencies.
A community united in suffering
In “Marta from the Blue Hill”, Hermanis once again remains true to his narrative style. Seated on a bench facing the audience, twelve performers speak openly and consistently to the crowd. Many of them with easily recognizable afflictions. They are twelve sufferers, each with his or her own personal story, who have left their stagnant lives for a short time in the hopes that Marta can heal their ailments. One of them, for example, demonstratively wears a T-shirt proclaiming a website for misfortune, www.unglueck.de.
With his approach to the story, Hermanis was faced with two particular issues. On the one hand, he aimed to express his esteem for who Marta was and, on the other, to create a play together with his ensemble that would focus on Marta’s clients. At least that is what it says in the program. By opting not to depict Marta as a character and instead to solely portray a community united in suffering on a long bench (set: Alvis Hermanis), he succeeds foremost in the latter.
One after the other, the twelve visitors relate their experiences with the healer, sometimes realistically objective, sometimes so moved they are speechless, sometimes sincerely, sometimes implausibly. Though they have come together for a common purpose, they are as different as can be. Every walk of life is represented: from the down-to-earth farmer’s son to the catty secretary. Nevertheless, one thing unites them: their longing search for the supernatural, which they are subsequently able to reveal in the presence of Blue Hill Marta. Hermanis even leaves the possibility that Marta’s ability to heal is merely the power of projection – meaning that her ailing clients merely benefit from a placebo effect – open to interpretation.
Hermanis accentuates the solidarity of this “communio,” which was formed by a shared longing for miracles and is reminiscent of the Last Supper related in the bible, again and again in interspersed moments. The constant repetition of the song “My Heart Will Go On” enables the audience to comprehend the similar, sacred nature of this scene yet also get the impression that they could just as well be standing at the front of the “Titanic” with Rose and Jack. When a ball of lightning begins to shoot across the stage in slow motion in the form of a spotlight being passed from performer to performer, the scene actually takes on cinematic qualities. Time seems to come to a halt, giving us the opportunity to embrace this moment of happiness; we’re all in the same boat.
Holding onto time and happiness
Hermanis’ dramatic handwriting is evident in the way in which other stylistic devices are used to underscore the spoken text. He frequently doubles what is happening on stage, for example when the performers describe Marta’s healing methods and simultaneously demonstrate her techniques on their subsequent neighbors. They unwrap sugar, bread and honey while announcing each item by name – a creative way to alter the significance of objects depending on how they are incorporated into the action of the play. The characters light a little fire, only to quickly extinguish it with a glass and insinuate a church scenario with the arising smoke.
These scenic combinations allow Hermanis to elevate the play’s text above all other symbolic elements. The result: One of Hermanis’ strengths, his ability to tell a story with the help of various means and methods, to portray that story’s themes through materials, remains inadequately utilized. Apart from his exploration of pop culture reminiscence of the movie “Titanic,” the Latvian all-rounder – who usually prefers to let his imagination run wild in two- to four-hour productions – flounders through this ninety-minute production unable to find a suitable dramatic language that goes beyond mere text.
A text-heavy dramatic language
The evening seems a little too choreographed, and moments in which meaning is not solely bound to the text level are rare. However, one of these rare moments occurs at the very end, when the people on the bench begin to form various symbols and construct their own little worlds with sugar cubes. Here, Hermanis succeeds in creating an impressive image whose appeal is based on more than just text – something which would have been nice to have more of in this play.
English translation by Lynnette Polcyn