The dark side appeals to Giselle Vienne. It’s much the same with the two teenage boys at the heart of Kindertotenlieder, the collaboration between Vienne, American novelist Dennis Cooper and musicians Stephen O’Malley and Peter Rehberg marking the UK debut of this French-based theatre-maker. With a title culled from Mahler’s Songs On The Death Of Children and references to Austrian pagan ritual, Vienne and Cooper update such morbid elegance to look at how adolescent fascination with the black-clad iconography of what’s playfully dismissed as the Goth scene can be taken all too seriously.
“It’s the story of a boy who kills his suicidal friend,” according to Vienne, “and the return of the dead teenager. It’s about how far we can take fantasies of killing someone in real life. I’m very interested in the fact that there are certain places you can have morbid fantasies, then take pleasure in letting them out through going to a concert. Because of our morality, most of us don’t let our fantasies go too far. But here the kid gets confused, and doesn’t know how to live out his fantasy in society.”
Such seemingly extreme material won’t come as a shock to fans of Cooper, whose novels, the latest of which is God Jnr, mine similar terrain of homo-eroticism married to explicit violence and set to a pop cultural back-drop. Add an array of life-size puppets to a show primarily performed by two female dancers playing the two doomed youths, and a live score performed by O’ Malley, leading light of drone metal band Sunn O))) (pronounced Sunn, with the symbols representing how the band “revolve around Earth,” an act Sunn O ))) formed in tribute to) and Rehberg of fellow-travellers Pita, and Kindertotenlieder is a rare collaboration of left-field forms that treats the aesthetics of black metal subculture with respect.
“It’s definitely accessing Goth culture,” according to Cooper, now also resident in France. “but taking all all that teen stuff seriously. But we were also looking at this ancient Austrian festival of Krampus, where once as year people dress up in these authentic pagan costumes then go into town to beat the shit out of people they think have sinned.”
Kindertotenlieder is the third collaboration between Vienne and Cooper, who first came together for 2004’s I Apologise, followed a year later by A Young Beautiful Blonde Girl. Vienne, a trained puppeteer of Austrian/French descent and weaned on visual and performance art, contacted Cooper, then living in Los Angeles, after becoming enthralled by his fictional depiction of love and violence. Such elements are evident too in Kindertotenlieder.
“There’s tension between the boys that’s both homosexual and homophobic,” Vienne says. “And when it comes out, that’s when fantasies can go wrong.”
Vienne studied close to Germany’s Black Forest region in the early 1990s, becoming exposed to the burgeoning Berlin underground of the time. A particular inspiration for her practice was Heiner Muller’s epic, Hamletmachine. Bringing together such seemingly disparate contributors fascinates Vienne. The musical input, however, is crucial.
“Stephen is kind of black metal,” Vienne says, “but there’s something very romantic going on within it. Peter can go off in a completely different direction. He’s very jubilatory, so the music can go from being very dark to hyper-pleasurable. Other music can be just as dark but can be very aggressive.”
Cooper was already a fan of Sunn O))) prior to O’Malley’s involvement. “Stephen’s music elongates time,” he says of the band’s sustained one-note dirges performed clad in hoods and robes. Unsurprisingly, O’Malley sees his music as ceremonial.
“It took me months to see the connection between our dynamic and anything theatrical,” he admits down the line from Tokyo, where Sunn O ))) are on tour prior to this week’s Glasgow dates. “Then Giselle told me about a tall blonde dancer who would warm up to Sunn O )))’s album. I found that shockingly surprising.”
Given that Kindertotenlieder concerns O’Malley’s immediate constituency more than the others, though, how does he feel about its representation?
“It goes beyond iconography,” he says, “to the nature of identity. People become very attached to its strong personality, but growing out of that is the whole process of developing a charisma. Some people,” he admits, “never do. Like myself,” he jokes.
The day after we speak, Vienne and Cooper are recording a radio version of Cooper’s text, Jerk, which the pair plan to bring to the stage in a solo puppet version next year. Following its Tramway opening, Kindertotenlieder will tour Germany, Sweden, Norway and France, stopping off at Nottingham en route. Accompanying the show’s Glasgow dates will be a full gig by KTL, the name under which O’Malley and Rehberg collaborate, at the all too appropriate Nice N’ Sleazys. William Bennett, vocalist of the equally confrontational duo, Whitehouse, will DJ.
“All these elements I put together,” Vienne says. “I need these tensions.”
Despite such a melting point of extremities, Vienne is acutely aware of keeping things in perspective.
“Dennis is often attacked for the content of his fiction,” she says, “but in the end it is just fiction. The whole thing about Kindertotenlieder is about where morality should act. Everyone has urges, and I may feel sometimes like killing my neighbour, but how then should we be true to our fantasies?”
Kindertotenlieder, Tramway, Glasgow, May 24-26. KTL play Nice N’ Sleazy’s, May 27
The Herald, May 22nd 2007