‘Ash’ Review: A Nobel Prize-Winner Confronts Environmental Collapse

Twenty years ago, when the Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek received the Nobel Prize in Literature it was a surprise that the award had gone to an author who was barely known outside the German-speaking world. It set off a scandal, too. A juror from the academy that makes the decision resigned, calling Jelinek’s work “unenjoyable, violent pornography.”

Despite her Nobel and the controversy that it engendered, Jelinek is still hardly a household name in the English-speaking world. In Germany and Austria, however, the premiere of a new play by this prolific and divisive writer is always an event. When the Münchner Kammerspiele presented the opening night of Jelinek’s “Ash” on Friday, every seat in the playhouse’s main theater was full.

Outside Europe, Jelinek is known, if at all, for her novels, which include “The Piano Teacher” (adapted into a 2001 movie by Michael Haneke) and “The Children of the Dead,” a gruesome 500-page opus that has just appeared in English, nearly 30 years after its original publication. But in Germany and Austria, she is the most widely performed female playwright writing in German, according to her publisher, having written nearly 50 scripts since 1979.

Like most of her stage works, “Ash” bears little resemblance to a conventional play. Jelinek’s signature dramatic form is the theatrical monologue: lengthy paragraphs of discursive text without clearly indicated characters, stage directions or conventional plot. It is left to directors to determine the size of the cast and to divide up Jelinek’s finely chiseled writing, which is by turns poetic, punning, allusive and philosophical.

Yet sadly, Jelinek’s prose is poorly served by the director Falk Richter in his hopelessly cluttered production of “Ash.” Throughout, our attention is diverted from the text by a barrage of ominous projections, creepy AI-generated video and the distorted sound design.

“Ash” continues the exploration of ecological themes that Jelinek has addressed, often with alarm, in much of her recent work, including her 2013 “stage essay” “rein GOLD,” which brings together Wagner and environmentalism, as well as her plays “Black Water” and “Sun/Air,” with which “Ash” constitutes a loose climate trilogy.

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