How can I speak of love when Im dead? runs a powerful line in Amour, a stage adaptation of Michael Hanekes 2012 film that premiered Sunday at the Salzburg Festival in Austria.
Love and death are, of course, the two great themes of art, but rarely have they been brought together so hauntingly as in Hanekes film, a portrait of an elderly couple forced to confront the issue of when life is no longer worth living. Told in Hanekes characteristically severe style, the film earned the Austrian director both a Palme dOr at the Cannes Film Festival and an Oscar for best foreign language film.
Karin Henkel, the adaptations director, eschews the films realism, opting instead for a highly stylized and self-consciously artificial staging that achieves its visceral impact through a combination of Brechtian estrangement techniques, emotionally naked performances and biographical monologues written by onstage extras.
Henkel scored a triumph in Salzburg two summers ago with Richard the Kid and the King, a sweeping epic of Shakespeares bloodthirsty monarch that ran to four hours. The German directors Amour a coproduction with the Münchner Kammerspiele theater, in Munich, where it will run in late October is as affectingly tender as her earlier Salzburg outing was grimly savage.
At the beginning of the production, the stage is dominated by a white tunnel, whose pristine, antiseptic interior is progressively sullied: its walls written on with watery black paint, its floor stained by thick black ink that trickles onto the performers, and mounds of dry earth that fall in heaps from the ceiling. One of the characters reclines on a metal-frame hospital bed that begins to resemble a medieval torture device when operated by a zealous nurse.
The tunnel, with its clinical associations, is eventually dismantled, revealing an unadorned stage strewn with an assortment of chairs, a piano, microphone stands and stage lights. Muriel Gerstners stage design is a constant negotiation between sterile everyday objects (harshly lit by Stephan Mariani) and elemental imagery of earth, water and flowers.
Like the film, however, this reimagining of Amour is anchored by its two central performances. Unlike the film, which starred two aging French cinema greats, the stage version is ignited by a dose of counterintuitive casting.
Katharina Bach, who is just 38, brings unexpected vitality and deep pathos to her portrayal of Anne, an elderly music teacher who is paralyzed by a stroke. (Emmanuelle Riva was in her mid-80s when she played the same role in Hanekes movie.) Bachs is a fitful and tormented performance, marked by intense physical and dramatic control. As Georges, Annes still-vigorous husband, André Jung, 69, brings an embittered and defiant spirit that is a thoughtful departure from Jean-Louis Trintignants pained and subtle performance in the film.
The German-language stage adaptation, by Henkel and dramaturge Tobias Schuster, hews closely to the French screenplay. At the same time, they employ strategies to defamiliarize the piece. The dialogue is heightened by frequent, often uncanny repetition. And many of the scripts stage directions are read out loud by two actors, Joyce Sanhá and Christian Löber, whose limber performances as narrators, nurses and other characters add to the productions anxious, off-kilter energy.
Henkels greatest gamble is including a 12-person chorus of nonprofessional extras. Each of them is old, infirm or in mourning, and, although they dont speak much onstage, they have written moving testimonies about living with health conditions, or losing loved ones to illness that are recited as monologues by the main cast. In the wrong directorial hands, this sort of intervention could easily have curdled into sentimentality. Here, however, the emotional charge of these testimonies is balanced by understatement and restraint. By a similar token, the productions depiction and discussion of euthanasia, while sometimes shocking, resists moralizing.
Hovering somewhere between the cast of extras and the main performers is actor Nine Manthei, a little girl who acts as an ambiguous intermediary. Is she a protecting angel? The personification of Annes soul? Along with Bachs skillful performance, Mantheis poise and onstage presence suggests a double exposure of Anne as an old woman and a child.
Old age might be tragic, but it is not individual, we hear Hanekes voice say in an excerpt from an interview about Amour that plays during the production.
More than a decade ago, Haneke employed his formal austerity and emotional restraint to immerse us in one elderly couples tragedy. But where film encourages realism, theater can embrace allegory and abstraction. With her sensitive, at times idiosyncratic, approach to this same material, Henkel uses her theatrical artistry to reach the universal.
Through Aug. 10 at the Salzburg Festival, in Salzburg, Austria; salzburgerfestspiele.at.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times