Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? A thin line between joke and madness

On the fourth night of MESS Festival, the audience had a chance to see the performance “Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?” of the Yugoslav Drama Theatre directed by Bobo Jelčić. Playing in the performance are Boris Isaković, Nataša Tapušković, Branko Cvejić, Dubravka Kovjanić, Milan Marić, Bojan Dimitrijević, Jelena Stupljanin, Vesna Čipić, Feđa Stojanović, Pavle Korač, Rade Stojiljković.

The piece originated from motifs from the 1970ties film of the same name by Ranier Werner Fassbinder and Michael Fengler. Mr. R works in an architectural firm and is expecting a promotion at work. He lives in Western Germany in the 70ties and the world around him is completely based on superficial and theatrical displays of prosperity. The family is a symbol, friendship is a symbol. The performance deals with the gradual internal deterioration of a man who is found in an artificial surrounding.

The surrounding of Mr. R is based on speed, while his natural state is sluggishness, therefore it’s not strange that he went mad. It seems that his life has no constants, only a sort of unusually quick transiency that, when paused, makes it hard for Mr. R to cope. Everybody only notices what’s good, and that which is broken isn’t worth fixing. How should Mr. R go about fixing himself then?

The lights in the hall are lit, there is a couch at the proscenium, two armchairs and the R family. By violating conventions in theatre, Jelčić portrays a twisted image of a classic family. An uncomfortable silence of their home is maintained and conveyed to the audience, who is now in a role of a TV that doesn’t seem to have anything interesting to watch. The family is sitting still, as if they have nothing to talk about. The silence is briefly cut by a song A little less conversation by Elvis Presley, which will stay as a leitmotif for the remainder of the performance and a reflection of the subjective state of its protagonist. With the arrival of their cousin Hana, the silence is broken and an incredibly fast-paced dialogue begins bordering on indistinct babbling, where we realize that in fact there is a lot to say, it only seems that Mr. R doesn’t have anyone to tell it to. Soon, other characters come to his apartment, father and mother who criticizes Mrs. R, a neighbor woman stopping by unexpectedly, work colleagues who tell jokes and three technicians coming from the outside in order to fix anything but the broken couch. All of this happens in a very small space in the corner of the stage which is representative of his cramped life from which he escapes by watching TV. The scenes are short, dynamic and serve to point to the vagueness and alienation of its main character. Metatheatrical approaches are well placed and purposeful.

Jelčić combines drama and epic theatre in this piece. Just the same as Mr. R is split between two lives, the one outside and on the inside of his mind, the performance is separated in two levels. Mr. R breaks through the fourth wall and addresses the audience in moments when he has to say something that he couldn’t to his wife or colleagues, however this procedure is utilized only half-way through the performance, and from the second half it is switched with bringing in an actual TV on which Mr. R follows up with the news, i.e. speeches of Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić whereby he is promising welfare and a future for the country. Although the director’s comment is clear, the character of Mr. R is unable to speak his mind, thus making him even more overwhelmed by the world around him.

By lifting the backdrop half-way through the performance, the external world of Mr. R is revealed, thus expanding his space where he can finally breathe freely. The previously established image of real life is disturbed with the illusion that there is a space outside the framework of his home. Behind the backdrop is a space where prop items are randomly scattered which serve no purpose beside the accentuation of a space wider that the cramped, claustrophobic living room which determines the main character. The dramatic turning point, wether its substantial or not in this performance is represented by a celebration where the characters (and one technician) relish in the song A little less conversation, through their dance routine we finally see real people with a need to live and have fun, not thinking about the tedious everyday life.

The piece borders with absurdity, and has elements of slapstick comedy at times, witty leitmotifs, such as the three technicians who essentially aren’t at all related to the happening on stage or the music. The rhythm of the performance doesn’t depend on the actors alone, whose performance is top-level, but the definitive mise-en-scene and plans by which they are playing. The greatest role in all of this falls on the dramaturgy, done by Nataša Govedarica, whereby she allows the rhythm to fall even in moments of long-lasting overly fast dialogue. The storyline of the performance is very much similar to that in the film, except that there is a special emphasis placed on the internal story of the main character and the psychological aspect of his personality, which is equally convincing weather through emotional, or comical scenes in which he is a true character, an individual of flesh and bone, whose problems are not any more different from an everyday man’s. However, the moment when Mr. R really goes mad becomes unnoticed due to too much comic relief, so ultimately the audience is not left too much space to completely empathize with Mr. R. Although the scene where Mr. R murders his neighbor and family is not explicitly shown, it is in itself strong enough to evoke pity, even discomfort, but in this piece it appeared as another comic relief, so that the pathetic ending which is deserved by this character is taken away from him.

When considering the surrounding of Mr. R, one could wonder how not to go insane. How to bear the pressure of society and remain a healthy stable person? Mr. R convinces us that that is impossible and weather we like it or not, insanity is present, maybe not in an obvious way, but it is always close. That which has always been the support and a sanctuary, for him became a routine from which he couldn’t escape. Boris Isaković could have easily became a caricature of an ordinary man, a parody of the head of a family who is in fact terrible at living life, but he was able to convince us that there is actually a tiny difference between normal and insanity. Isaković provided this character with charm, allowed us to love it the way it is. It is equally convincing, but in a completely different way how Nataša Tapušković brought her character to life, which created a funny and dear babble-mouth Mrs. R through her acting skills. It is important to note the boss of Mr. R played by Branko Cvejić, who brings such amazing energy just by walking onto the stage, and without any lines, that you could consider him the funniest character in this piece.

The world of this performance is absurd and illogical, but it is near to our understanding because it is real. The main character is a small man going from happiness to sadness, just like the world which changes around him. He is an individual who lives through life’s troubles like all of us and isn’t able to cope with them. If this performance is a reflection of ourselves, ordinary people who are feeling an immense, all-present pressure that is not to be mentioned in this neoliberal world of freedom, then nobody really knows how to cope with the madness. That is possibly the exact problem of Mr. R, but what to do next, if there is a next? Although the performance succeeded in making the audience laugh, the idea is unfortunately overly simplified and reduced to jokes with tragic endings. That is why Mr. R could only have had a tragic ending.

Written by: Emina Šehić

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