A ghost of a story

When I Die makes for an engrossing experience.

A ghost story with music: ‘When I Die.’ (photo credit: KARIN HOFER)
A ghost story with music: ‘When I Die.’
(photo credit: KARIN HOFER)
There may be all kinds of research papers by psychologists and their ilk about the dangers of over-stimulation, and how our attention spans are getting ever shorter as we are continually exposed to information overload. But Thom Luz clearly wants us to keep our eyes and ears open simultaneously, in various directions.
That is one of the principal themes that runs through the 30-something Swiss theater director’s play, When I Die, which is in the lineup of this year’s Israel Festival. It will be performed at the Jerusalem Theatre on June 5 and 6 (both 10 p.m.). The production goes by the subtitle of A Ghost Story with Music, which really gives the plot away.
When I Die is, yes you’ve guessed, basically a ghost story and there is lots of music in it. It is based on the real-life tale of an Englishwoman called Rosemary Brown, a widowed mother of two who lived in modest circumstances in south London.
Brown claimed to have been visited in 1994 by the spirit of 19th-century Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, who asked permission to dictate to her some works that he hadn’t managed to get down on paper during his lifetime. Sketchy musical training notwithstanding, Brown acceded to the request, but the situation became ever more complicated as the Hungarian specter’s appearance was followed by visitations by a whole string of renowned composers of yesteryear, including Beethoven, Debussy, Brahms, Grieg and even John Lennon.
In addition to his theatrical work, Luz is a member of indie-rock threesome My Heart Belongs to Cecilia Winter. So it comes as little surprise to learn that the Swiss director’s first port of call, when considering a new stage venture, is music.
“I like it when music can tell a story,” Luz notes, “when a story has a narrative, not transported through words alone. If music and sound can tell a story, I like that. I am always looking for stories that can be told through music and sound and atmosphere.” Luz certainly found what he was looking for with When I Die.
“With this one, that was the most extreme case, because we have some pieces that come from the afterlife. At first, when we started working with this music, we thought we could make a little individual ghost story with it.” The project grew on Luz and his cohorts.
“The longer we worked on it, we began to think about faith and belief, and the music really transported these questions in a very easy way. That is exactly what I am looking for.”
Luz works on all sorts of planes. There are musical excerpts of various kinds, and the storyline ebbs and flows and meanders across wide thematic tracks and mind-sets. There are moments of stark drama, wistful interludes and spots of the darkest, richest humor imaginable, which seem to be plucked straight out of some abyss.
The idea of an elderly woman, still racked by grief following her husband’s untimely death, left to bring up their children on a shoestring budget and having to contend with a merry bunch of deceased composers would present any theater professional worth their salt with a bucketful of comedic possibilities.
Luz certainly digs that, but stresses that he approaches such endeavor as gently as possible.
“In theater, I like to console the inconsolable. I like it when theater is not only about showing conflict and showing problems, and holding the mirror up to society. I also want to offer comfort, and consolation through the creation of a strange beauty.”
Luz is totally sold on the funny-bone approach. “I think that humor is one of the best human accomplishments,” he states.
“And it is a very serious kind of humor that I am trying to apply, because, as I said, it’s a comfort. I am very serious about my humor,” he adds with a chuckle. “I take this joke very seriously.”
That is evident from a video of the play shot four years ago, when the production was just starting out. All five actors are clearly on the ball, physically and emotionally, and the action, feelings and intent fluctuate in more than one sense.
The stage setting is pretty bare, and there are lots of empty spaces around the props and cast members. That leaves plenty of logistical leeway to shift objects around, thereby pulling our attention this way and that. This sometimes happens in two or more spots simultaneously, upping the spectator’s focus ante even further.
Luz says he wants us to sharpen our powers of concentration, but surely having stuff on the stage going on in tandem is more likely to exacerbate the attention situation. The director begs to differ.
“That is one of my big themes. I think that our attention span has become a lot shorter."
“Since the invention of YouTube everything has to come to a point. I feel that many people are losing their ability to focus for longer, and I think the theater is one of the only refuges where this is still possible.”
The problem, Luz argues, deepens even more when our access to visual information is limited to what we catch on the Internet or our cellphones, rather than catching the action live. “The camera, in a video production or films, takes away one of the most important things, which is our ability to choose where you look. In my work there are many small things happening, and nothing is in the center, nothing is in focus. You can create your own path through the piece.”
As an observer himself, Luz says he enjoys being coopted. “When I go to see something, I enjoy the feeling of discovering something new, that the person sitting next to me has not yet discovered. My stories are almost never about what is happening in the foreground, or about what is the most visible or the most audible.”
That is crystal clear from When I Die. There is a plethora of sounds and sights to be captured and stored away, before the next sequence of action emerges. Luz wants his audience to be on board, to subscribe to what is happening on the stage, to be fully committed and, in fact, complete the story themselves.
When I Die is a feast for all the senses and a wide spectrum of emotions. The aural sense is certainly kept fully engaged, as the characters wheel props across the boards, naturally making no small amount of noise in the process. And the female character does not exactly take fairy footsteps as she makes her way, in high heels, to different positions. Musical instruments appear all over the show, and TV screens stretch the dimensional spread even further.
The dialogue is spoken in a mixture of English, German and French – there will be Hebrew surtitles – but, in essence, it does not always seem to matter whether the actual words are comprehensible.
Time is also an important element and, for much of the show, we hear the insistent sound of a ticking clock; but pathos is palpable throughout. The visual aesthetics are generally pared down to basics, but somehow the end product seems no less rich for it.
When I Die makes for an engrossing experience.
For tickets and more information: *2561 and www.israel-festival.org.il