You expected a lot, but not that. Milo Rau, Swiss theater star and artistic director in Ghent, staged Schiller’s “Wilhelm Tell” in the Pfauen, the main stage of the Zurich Schauspielhaus. Rau became famous with staged recreations of reality, he staged the “Moscow Trials” against the activists of pussy riot staged a war crimes tribunal in the Congo, had children reenact the crimes of the Belgian child molester Marc Dutroux, or recreated an hour of broadcasting time on the radio station that had been instrumental in calling for the genocide in Rwanda.
When Milo Rau tackles a topic, it often becomes painful, upsetting, and even provocative. And always political. In the run-up to his “Tell” production, in which amateur actors, as is so often the case with him, play a key role, he immediately clarified a few parameters. Diagonally across from the Pfauen is the new Chipperfield building and extension of the Kunsthaus Zürich. This home the art collection of Emil G. Bührle, a weapons manufacturer, who amassed a huge fortune with armaments deals, especially with the Nazis, in order to build up an exquisite art collection, for which he also “acquired” inexpensive works from Jewish collectors who had to flee from the Nazis. Bührle’s collection consists at least in part of looted art – and is avoided by the enlightened section of Swiss art lovers.
The scandal has been brewing in Zurich since the new building opened in autumn 2021, but it is much older. As early as 1970, Max Frisch noted in his diary how he observed demonstrations in front of the Kunsthaus. At that time, Dietrich Bührle, son of Emil G., had been sentenced to a ridiculous suspended sentence for illegally transporting weapons to countries ravaged by civil war. The son evidently carefully carried on the father’s legacy, and 50 years later the new building for the collection was built. A few days before the “Tell” premiere, Rau and the artist Miriam Cahn were in a gallery nearby performed an art eventin which, among others, the heiress of a Jewish merchant whose Monet is in the collection had a say, for which the Bührle Foundation has so far refused “a fair solution”.
Swiss television is waiting for a scandal. But there is none
With this history, one expects great agitation from “Tell” – and finds oneself in a performance that is deeply moving. The Bührle complex is always in the back of one’s mind, a banner “Hang the Bührle on a cord” hangs above the entrance door, and Swiss television is waiting for a scandal. But there is none. Schiller’s Tell is an unwilling freedom hero, he ultimately kills the Habsburg Reichsvogt Gessler to protect the family. Tell is a keeper of an old, just order, not a representative of a social utopia. But Rau is aiming at them. To freedom, an egalitarian society. On making those visible that you don’t want to see.
Until they appear, there are first theatrical stories. The five actors of the evening are on the front stage, Michael Neuenschwander is leaning on the double bass, Maja Beckmann has strapped on an electric guitar, both of them conjure up wonderfully gentle sounds again and again. Sebastian Rudolph will soon emerge from behind a coat rack in Nazi uniform – a tribute to Christoph Schlingensief’s production of “Hamlet” in the same location that Rudolph took part in in 2001. But first, Karin Pfammatter, one of the three Swiss members of the Schauspielhaus ensemble, turns on a Revox tape recorder. One hears an excerpt from the “Tell” program booklet from 1939, when the theater became the European exile stage par excellence: “The word of spiritual national defense is on everyone’s lips today. It shouldn’t mean restriction, but width.” Swiss neutrality means freedom and humanity, it is important “to preserve the image of man in all his diversity”. At the same time Bührle was doing business with the Nazis.
The actors talk about themselves, about the theatre. Rudolph reports on the absurdity of the Schlingensief production, in which former neo-Nazis took part. Maya Alban-Zapata, PoC, tells how she always has to serve as the theater’s conscience: as a one-woman emergency response team in tricky moments.
Then space opens and the world comes in. Milo Rau selected ten laypersons from hundreds of applicants. They help the pros create the performance, but most importantly they all have their own stories and Rau gives that space. The framework is still the “tell”, sometimes it is even too much for Schiller’s words, because the 100 minutes of the performance do not depict a drama but are a tableau. However, this is full of ideas, some implemented in a shaky way, others real magic tricks, in which stage reality and ready-made films merge into one another. Tell and Gessler meet alone twice, as Neuenschwander and Rudolph. The first scene is only reported in the play, the second is the murder in the hollow alley, both are 1930s drama films, strangely erotic.
Between Schiller’s words appear: Irma Frei, who, as an orphan and contract child, did forced labor in a Bührle textile factory for three years in the 1960s. Sarah Brunner, first officer in the Swiss army, who married Hermon Habtemariam in a staged action days ago, a refugee without papers (“sans papiers”), now safe for three years. Cyrill Albisser is a picture book hunter and shows the adorable, clumsy and curious Maja Beckmann the art of stalking. The gorgeous Meret Landolt talks about her childhood in the village and the teasing she had to endure because of her crippled hands, Cem Kirmizitoprak complains about the 80,000 steps in St. Gallen: “It’s hell for a disabled person in a wheelchair.” And Vanessa Gasser talks about her work as a geriatric nurse, about dignity and tenderness. Every single person captivates with his story.
That’s a fraction of what’s being said here. The performance is extremely dense, sometimes banal, often grandiose. Above all, however, the true stories of real people, which ultimately include the actors, depict exactly what the exile ensemble was aiming for in 1939: comprehensive humanity.