Lasha Chkhartishvili*

Das achte Leben (Für Brilka), or The Eighth Life (for Brilka). Adapted by Julia Lochte and Emilia Linda Heinrich from the novel by Nino Kharatishvili. Directed by Jette Steckel. Costume designer: Pauline Hüners; stage designer: Florian Lösche; video by Zaza Rusadze; choreographer: Yohan Stegli; music adapted by Mark Badur; photographer: Armin Smailovic. Cast: Franziska Hartmann, Mirco Kreibich, Karin Neuhäuser, Barbara Nüsse, Sebastian Rudolph, Maja Schöne, André Szymanski, Cathérine Seifert. World premiere: April 8, 2017, at Thalia Theater in Hamburg, Germany. Seen in Tbilisi during the Tbilisi International Festival of Theatre, in October 2018.

Georgian theatre chose the European model and form from its outset. This link was never broken, even when the censors of the Soviet Union put up the Iron Curtain. The productions of Kote Marjanishvili in the 1920s and of his student Sandro Akhmeteli, who was shot in 1937 as an enemy of the people, are the best examples of that.

Nino Kharatishvili (born 1983) is a Georgian author. She writes in German and lives in Germany. By performing a stage version of her novel, Das achte Leben (Für Brilka), Hamburg’s Thalia Theater bridges the gap between twentieth-century Georgian history and present-day Europe. Kharatishvili was preceded in the German language by Grigol Robakidze, who emigrated to Germany in 1930, the same year his play Lamara was staged by the aforementioned directors, Marjanishvili and Akhmeteli, in the Rustaveli National Theatre. Robakidze went on to write some of his best plays and novels in German.

New Year’s masquerade in Christine’s house. L-R: Mirco Kreibich, Lisa Hagmeister, Karin Neuhäuser, Franziska Hartmann, Cathérine Seifert, Sebastian Rudolph. Photo: Armin Smailovic

The visiting performance of The Eighth Life (for Brilka) took place in that same Rustaveli National Theatre, within the framework of the Tbilisi International Festival of Theatre. The stage adaptation of the novel is by Julia Lochte and Emilia Linda Heinrich.

The performance faithfully follows the storyline of the 2014 novel. It offers an account of twentieth-century Georgia and the dramatic life of the entire post-Soviet period through the example of one family. The family saga starts in 1900 with the birth of the main heroine, Stasia (Barbara Nüsse), and flows through six generations, through all the wars and revolutions; from the Russian Revolution to the creation of the New Europe at the beginning of the twenty-first century. It is a true chronicle of its time, seen through the eyes of Georgian family members, imprisoned in history and defined by the totalitarian regime, social disorders and family tragedies.

Elena and Kostia in Moscow. At the table, André Szymanski and Karin Neuhäuser; next to the mirror, Cathérine Seifert and Sebastian Rudolph. Photo: Armin Smailovic

The story begins in a small town in Georgia, where Stasia’s father, a gifted chocolatier, creates a recipe for a hot chocolate drink which becomes a huge success. The story immediately brings up for any Georgian the image of Lagidze Waters, a soft drink with a secret recipe still on the market today. Stasia and her three sisters are brought up in luxury. When Stasia’s sister Christine (Maja Schöne), a woman of exquisite beauty, is noticed by Stalin’s right-hand man Beria, who is never mentioned by name in the performance, the misfortunes of the family start.

Brilka (Cathérine Seifert) is the last offspring of this family, born in newly independent Georgia in the 1990s, a time of hardships and internal conflicts. Brilka is a hope for the family, symbolizing the hope of the entire country that the new generation, the eighth since the establishment of the Soviet regime in Georgia, will lead a peaceful life. Nino Kharatishvili’s characters are people trapped in time and space, through which they are united.

Here are German actors performing Georgian history, full of drama and adversity, cruelty and kindness. They weave the Georgian national character, reacting with dramatic precision to the given situations and aesthetics of the show.

The director Jette Steckel, who discovered the Georgian audience through the stage adaptation of Kharatishvili’s novel, is considered a great master of contemporary theatrical art. At a time of technical development and virtual reality, Steckel takes the more difficult path, choosing to forgo “scenic effects” and “visual emotions” to involve the viewer in the performance; opting instead for traditional, realistic and effective ways. Rather than trying to please and impress the audience with new inventions, the director puts her experience, fantasy and mastery into the various components of the performance.

Throughout the play, the director keeps in constant touch with the audience. She knows exactly when to make them cry or smile, when to make them relax or how to make an emotional impact. In this minimalist setting, the authors of the play are telling us real stories of real people who have been through hard times. Their psyche is broken; impacted by the violations of each era. Interestingly, these eras do not much differ from each other. The director keeps a constant balance between drama and humor, pathos and irony; however, she is “powerless” when it comes to the emotional background of the text, which successfully generates in the audience a real sense of the hard and ruthless past of the Georgian nation.

Stasia (Barbara Nüsse) does the hula hoop. Left: Franziska Hartmann. Photo: Armin Smailovic

Steckel and stage designer Florian Lösche have created an original stage space, empty but for a suspended rug which, from a distance, seems to be decorated with Georgian ornaments but, up-close, is seen to have artistic portraits of Stalin on it. The rug serves the function of a screen. Documentary footage relevant to each era (video by Zaza Rusadze) is shown in parallel with the performers’ actions on the stage. When the story reaches April 9, 1989, when the Soviet army dispersed a peaceful demonstration of young people, resulting in 21 deaths, the rug turns into a river of blood; later it becomes a river of flowers, to bring back memories of the hundreds of thousands of tulips brought by Georgians to the place of the tragedy.

For obvious reasons, only three symbolic colours are used on stage—red, black and white. The metaphor of these colours continues in the costumes (created by Pauline Hüners). All theatrical components organically unite in this performance, their synthesis creating a theatrical harmony. In the staging, these components do not strictly adhere to “nationality,” which is good, as in this way the authors of the play give the tragic stories a much larger scale.

Overall, nine actors perform the five-hour play: Lisa Hagmeister, Franziska Hartmann, Mirco Kreibich, Marie Löcker, Karin Neuhäuser, Barbara Nüsse, Sebastian Rudolph, Maja Schöne and André Szymanski. They each create unforgettably the characters and heroes of the novel. Although they play ethnic Georgians, they also demonstrate how anyone would act in the given situation, showing us how hard times impact on people and lives.

Nino Kharatishvili’s The Eighth Life (for Brilka) is an epic scenic work, replete with artistic faces, shadows and reflections of the era: lovers and disappointed couples, angry and despairing conformists formed in the inevitable historical processes, conscious and unconscious sinners, struggling heroes and those who have faced their destiny. Kharatishvili’s novel did much more for Georgia than any politician in recent decades: she has managed to present our country’s tragic destiny to Europe in a magnificent way. 

*Lasha Chkhartishvili, PhD, theatre critic and blogger of Artarea TV, General Manager of Contemporary Georgian Theatre Research center, Assistant Professor of Shota Rustaveli Theatre and Film Georgian State University, Vice President of the Georgian Theatre Critics Union, Member of International Association of Theatre Critics (AICT-IATC), Invited Professor at the Caucasus University and Ilia State University (Tbilisi, Georgia), Author of 10 monographs and over 500 articles.

Copyright © 2019 Lasha Chkhartishvili
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The Twentieth Century in One Family