Live through all wars. Cross all borders. To you I dedicate all gods and all rosaries, all burnings, all decapitated hopes, all stories.’
It was when I read these words, on page seventeen of 1275, that Nino Haratischwili’s The Eighth Life: For Brilka really captivated me. It was a hot June day in 2015 and I was reclining in my mother’s garden with a broken foot, this brick of a book in my lap.
Over the weeks that followed I lived through all wars and crossed all borders, along with six generations of the Jashi family, with headstrong Stasia, beautiful Christine, sad Kitty and lost Niza. I disappeared altogether from the world, from the here and now, and gave myself over to the velvety, crystal-clear prose and the pull of the story. At the end I was overcome with that deep sadness I had thought was a thing of the past, sadness at having to let go of these new friends, this new family. Even 1275 pages felt much too short.
When I heard that the Thalia Theater in Hamburg was planning to stage this behemoth of a book, I got tickets at once. But at the same time I thought: ‘This is completely insane, there’s no way it’s going to work.’ Because how on earth could such a complex story be transferred to the stage successfully, in all its beauty, with all its branching storylines and characters?
And yet it did work. It did more than work. With this production, lasting just under ve hours, director Jette Steckel and dramaturgs Julia Lochte and Emilia Linda Heinrich have worked a miracle at least as great as the author’s own. They exploit all the media that the novel uses: music, dance and lm; scenery, light and colour. Everything the author created with words now takes shape in front of the audience, a sensory overload. Suspended above the stage is a larger-than- life roll of carpet, from which a red carpet covered in images of Lenin, Stalin and co. is pulled down, slowly and continually over the course of the play, until the whole thing falls onto the stage. Old military songs ring out, video clips of invading Russian troops are projected onto the carpet. Here, theatre does – theatre dares to do – what literature simply cannot.
And it is not least the actors that breathe so much – well, life – into The Eighth Life. At seventy-four, Barbara Nüsse is as moving and convincing when she plays the sixteen-year- old Stasia as she is as the elderly matriarch – tender, fragile, strong and present, you can’t take your eyes off her. When the young Stasia falls in love with the female poet and activist Sopio and dances across the stage with her, at once fearful and eager for what she has begun, I am instantly moved to tears. And sixty-two-year-old Karin Neuhäuser as Christine provides the perfect antidote to Nüsse’s strong Stasia. It is these two women who carry the whole production. They and the young Mirco Kreibich, who plays no fewer than nine roles – including the title role of Brilka – and is on stage for almost the entire play, giving everything he has.
At the end, it is Lisa Hagmeister as Niza who speaks my favourite lines in a closing monologue: ‘Live through all wars. Cross all borders.’ The beginning placed at the end – the text, this wonderful text, not ignored but simply made to fit, reordered. Brave, and exactly right.
After five hours, the curtain has barely fallen when the whole audience leaps to its feet as if on cue, and there is a twenty-five minute standing ovation, loud cries of ‘Bravo!’
I myself am hardly able to stand, my knees are trembling, there is a lump in my throat. Catharsis. It has all worked, we have all been given a gift.