An Intelligent and Accomplished Finder of Cracks

Laudatory speech for Thiemo Strutzenberger, held by Andreas Klaeui on the occasion of the 3sat-Award-ceremony

A green colour field shows slight abstract contours.

He doesn’t make his entrance at the front of the stage, in the spotlight, this Graf Öderland in Stefan Bachmann’s Max Frisch-production from Basel. Instead, he glides in, hesitantly, almost reluctantly; he crouches, as it were, creeping into the light from the side. The high, narrow circular opening of the falling funnel, which set designer Olaf Altmann has invented as the location for Frisch’s fable, flares up like an optical lens – and there he comes, easing himself from the darkness of the fly gallery, actor Thiemo Strutzenberger: hunched over himself, one shoulder drawn upwards, with strangely – and in fact anatomically impossibly – knotted legs, his hands searching for support on the walls. Which is nowhere to be found, of course.

In Frisch’s play, general prosecutor Martin charms confessions from the accused with well calculated empathy, absorbing their stories with a saturated shudder. But one particular case unsettles him and turns his world upside down, transforming this bourgeois civil servant into an anarchist. He becomes “Graf Öderland with the axe in his hand”. A murder without motive is like a “crack in the wall”, as Thiemo Strutzenberger pants. This crack becomes his passion, henceforth permeating his character “from the top to the bottom” in an almost biblical manner. Öderland squeezes himself through this crack into the “juste milieu”, a monster, a nightmare of civil society. There is a feeling of coldness in Strutzenberger’s character, even when he talks about holidaying in Spain. An icy, inexorable branching out of power fantasies and helpless resentment that turns the outcast into a bourgeois spectre.

“Graf Öderland”, which Frisch called his favourite play, perhaps because he was freer in his dramaturgy than in most of his others, is also his most inaccessible. An irrational rampage from the midst of society. But where Frisch’s text is still haunted by the existentialist acte authentique and the red-baiting of the Cold War (and, alas, his problematic depiction of women), director Stefan Bachmann and actor Thiemo Strutzenberger reveal its pure, crude horror. A frenzy of insurgency, of power and violence, where alienation, cultural anxiety and a weariness of civil society shift into pure aggression. The way that Thiemo Strutzenberger develops this with a cold fever, how he manages to leave the divide between waking dream and panicked clarity permeable, is breath-taking.

Thiemo Strutzenberger is a high-risk player. He is never satisfied with developing his characters in your face, always looks for the cracks that he can squeeze himself through from the side. The first time that I noticed this – noticed him – was at Zurich’s Neumarkt theatre in 2009, where he was a member of Barbara Weber’s and Rafael Sanchez’ new company: as a Swiss hippie in an Alp-chalet in the musical grotesque “Hair”, as a Russian lover with exactly the necessary grain of playboy in all his narrow-mindedness in “Anna Karenina”. One year later, he joined artistic director Andreas Beck at the Vienna Schauspielhaus; he moved on to Basel with Beck’s company in 2015 and to Munich in 2019.

Maximilian Aue in “Die Wohlgesinnten” (2013), Gessler in “Wilhelm Tell” (2017), the Captain in Ulrich Rasche’s “Woyzeck”-production in the autumn of 2017, and finally Iago in “Othello X” (2018) – company management like to see Thiemo Strutzenberger as the villain. Perhaps he does, too. We, the audience, certainly do – because he always finds the cracks in these villains and – above all – the wretch.

And, of course, he also finds their suffering, as with – another lasting impression – his Gaveston in Ewald Palmetshofer’s Marlowe-rewrite “Edward II” at Schauspielhaus Wien, this initially frivolous, eroticized and later blood- and pain-riddled “intruder from fucker-Frenchie-land”. Passion in its double meaning.

Thiemo Strutzenberger plays for equally high stakes when it comes to his work on text and with language. He looks for cracks here, too, and squeezes himself inside the words. At times, he imposes his own rhythm onto them, dismembering them into their components of significance. He staged Édouard Louis’ autobiographical story “The End of Eddy” as a lesson in de-submission. He also writes, first as author-in-residence at Schauspielhaus Wien, then at Theater Basel. One example is “Wiederauferstehung der Vögel”: a de-contouring story of two cousins from a patrician family in Basel, Fritz and Paul Sarasin, who were both naturalists and lovers. Artful, committed, ingenious texts which probably need Renaissance-like universal players to be staged – players like him. An intelligent and accomplished finder of cracks across all categories. Yvonne Büdenhölzer, Wolfgang Horn and I offer our heart-felt congratulations on winning the 3sat-Award!