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/ Sylvia \

by on 19 November 2018

Twisted Icon of an Entire Era

/ Sylvia \

by Ja?, adapted from a play by Stéphane Ghislain Roussel

Ja? Theatre Company at The Etcetera Theatre until 18th November

Voila Europe Festival

Review by Lola McKeith

The resemblance is striking. You enter the space and there it is: the cropped hair, the monocle, the shapeless plaid dress with the high collar repressing all notions of femininity, the champagne flute, the carefully arranged cigarette case, but most of all the uncanny angular pose, the pointy shoulders, interlocked legs, the twisted torso and peculiarly placed hands all artfully arranged in their awkwardness. The Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia Von Harden by Otto Dix, if not as shocking as in 1926 then arguably still as intriguing, is one of the most instantly recognisable images of the twentieth century because it did, exactly as intended by the artist, come to represent an entire era.

Dix was a German painter well-known for his brutal portrayal of debauched dilapidated Weimar society, all whores and cripples, murderers, beggars, street urchins, cabaret dancers and circus freaks, ghoulish and grotesque, often exaggerated in their ugliness to resemble comic-book-like caricatures. Legend has it that he spotted Sylvia, a fixed member of the intellectual glitterati in 1920s Berlin, at the Romanisches Café and exclaimed: “I have to paint you!” He saw in her the personification of the New Woman, the boyish, flapper dressed, bob-haired new ideal of modernity. Sylvia agreed to sit for him, an hour every day for weeks on end, a process she found tiresome and which resulted in a painting she thought “strange” at first but grew to be immensely proud of, posing next to it in old age at the Centre Pompidou.

We meet Sylvia as she sits for the painter, twitching, bored, unable to switch off her never resting inquisitive mind. She shares her trail of thoughts with us, the audience, standing in for the painter, observing her, “scrutinizing” her body, her features, her clothes. Sylvia isn’t entirely comfortable being watched like this, it seems, but defiantly pushes on and something about the attention seems to flatter her.

Sylvia Ja


Performer Joseph Morgen Schofield, who uses pronouns they or them, is an utterly charming Sylvia, witty, observant, gossipy, pensive, with a commanding stage presence most notable in the long silences deliciously savoured to the last almost unbearable second. Where Dix saw in von Harden a question about femininity and the binary expectations enforced on women, Monocle, Portrait de S. von Harden by the Luxembourgish artist Stéphane Ghislain Roussel written for a non-binary performer explores modern day notions of gender fluidity and gender performance. In its translation from French and German into English, Ja? Theatre Company aims to give the figure of Sylvia a more international, universal appeal, still peppering her monologue with the odd French expression or German remark. A white screen as background serves both to frame the little scene and open up a multimedia window into the future where a modern day Sylvia (Caroline Tyka) explores her own nowadays urban environment. While initially the videos of city lights and noise add a layer of restless urban atmosphere, as Sylvia tells us of the “sequined nights” of Weimar Berlin, it is not entirely clear what the second actor, interrupting with shorter and shorter snippets of German text, adds to the play. Maybe it’s to disrupt the feeling of nostalgia that easily spreads when Schofield sings, with the breaking, fragile voice of a Cabaret diseuse, a song about Berlin to the crackling playback of an old shellac record. A moment of magic is promptly broken by a self-deprecating remark, Sylvia’s readiness to laugh at herself first before anyone else can.

Sylvia Promo

The fragility of the supposedly “ugly” or unconventional woman is painfully obvious, in the way she longingly describes the opulent flesh of the cabaret dancer Martha or the luscious red curls of Anita Berber, another era-defining woman whose beauty apparently turned men into poets. Would Felix, her current beau, kill herself for her, as a suitor did for Martha? Would she herself become a vision of Berber-esque red curls and beauty at the hands of Otto Dix? What we witness most of all is a fiercely intelligent woman who in the face of physical attention longs to be sensual, desirable, even a bit ditzy, imitating the reckless, devil-may-care glamour of a Sally Bowles. Vices were the epitome of chic in Weimar Germany and the chain-smoking Sylvia is as fascinated by gossip, tabloid scandal, lose morals and raunchiness as the entire era. It’s all a pose though. A performance. It’s a type that represented the era, not any one person, the New Woman is a construct as hollow as the plaid dress that is left on the chair like the shell of a ghost.

It’s an interesting hour spend in the company of the immensely watchable Joseph Morgen Schonfield. While Otto Dix was notorious for his merciless, flaw enhancing “evil eye”, /Sylvia\ celebrates with empathy and kindness the beauty of not quite fitting in.

Lola McKeith
November 2018

Photography by Christina Bulford

From → Drama, Reviews


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  1. /Sylvia | Mark Aspen
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