Quartet plays the game

Staging Heiner Müller’s work is always daring. His works are complex, laden with imagery, defiant and downright difficult to understand (if a neat story line is what you’re after).

Müller is known as a postmodernist, although he eschewed this label, saying the only postmodernist he knew of was a modernist who worked at the post office. But his works are postmodern in that they are non-linear, question the crisis of meaning, and reflect that we’ve reached an endpoint in human history.

Quartet, written in 1981, deals with notions of reality, identity, and truth. It’s almost devoid of plot; a semblance of one has a man and woman playing a dangerous role-playing game. Marquise de Merteuil (Greta Pietersen) and Vicomte de Valmont (Ludwig Binge) are chameleon-like characters traversing the textual landscape. They vary their identities, invoking imagery of jealousy, rage, lust vs. love, fetish, marriage and virginal purity.

Religion rears its head, deeply entwined with controlling what people do with their bodies. Amidst the game-playing, Valmont tries to convince the virtuous wife that the devil will take a virgin’s soul if she doesn’t satiate his needs, before he gives in to temptation. All their souls will be damned then. Later, Valmont explains that God wouldn’t have blessed us with bodies if we couldn’t do what we can think up. “The deepest fall into Hell is out of innocence.” Later, the game sees a priest teaching a young girl “where God dwells”.

The set is stark. Nothing more than a black table is needed. The lighting is stark. Cold white. Their existence is stark, absorbed in distractingly pleasuring themselves – “the flesh has its own spirit”.

Stylistically, Pietersen and Binge’s performances are extra-heightened. It’s extreme. A barrage of words are levelled at each other, dizzying, used as weapons. “Tears?”, the characters repeat, knowing full well their words are intentionally cutting.

The mirror highlights their narcissism. They seek in their reflections their true selves but with painted faces, it’s impossible. “Is that grimace hiding a face, or a mask?” Metaphorically, the games the couple play represent a life consisting continuously of switching our masks to fit the situation. Valmont asks, “Are we to go on playing?”

Müller once said, “The theatre has nothing to do with ideas”. Yet his texts continue to inspire, confound, offend and enrich. Marthinus Basson’s Quartet is difficult to watch, it’s dark and sick. If you’re up for stirring, disturbing theatre… this might just be for you. – Sarah Roberson

Quartet is on tonight (28/09) @ 6pm @ City Hall 3. Click here for production information.

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