“Recherche Show” – Vienna Volkstheater

The Kreation Kollektiv’s Recherche Show (Research Show), a co-production with the Vienna Volkstheater and Theater im Bahnhof, Graz, premiered in a Zoom streaming from a Volkstheater rehearsal space on 12 February. It locked horns with the subject of the most internationally recognized of Austrian exports, the energy drink Red Bull and, as the title suggests, was an interesting theatrical interpretation of a critical, well-researched article on Dietrich Mateschitz, the Austrian founder of Red Bull, and on the marketing techniques used over decades to promote “the can”; as the drink has been nicknamed — and not necessarily affectionately, especially by environmentalists — by the Austrian magazine Dossier.

A not-for-profit magazine devoted to “conducting and promoting investigative and data journalism since 2012”, Dossier published about the energy drink on the same day that Recherche Show premiered, recalling to mind the staging of Living Newspapers during the Federal Theatre Project in the 1930s in the United States. And yet its probing self-examination has its own theatrical precedence in the scathing indictment of the Austrian people in the dramas of Thomas Bernhard, in particular Heldenplatz which scorns his fellow citizens’ easy acceptance in 1938 of annexation to Hitler’s Germany, referred to as the “Anschluss” written at a time (1988) when Austrian nationals had voted into office a former Nazi, Kurt Waldheim.

Additionally, this was not the first time the Volkstheater has carried a show that cast a jaundiced eye on Red Bull and its owner. Gutmenschen, directed by Yael Ronen, which references the red bull and Servus-TV (owned by Mateschitz) and which associates the fate of a refugee who has been unjustly refused Austrian nationality with the far-right climate in Austria at that time, premiered at the Volkstheater in 2018.

While Recherche Show felt familiar in its embedding of theatre with the subject of social injustice, it simultaneously exploited the advantage of Zoom as a two-way digital medium. All viewers were asked to reply to a series of questionnaires projected onto the screen during the course of this 90-minute dramatized dossier.

 

Rupert Lehofer in Recherche Show. Photo credit: Nikolaus Ostermann.

 

A question had a list of alternative responses, and we viewers were asked to check the response that best fit our thoughts on the subject. To my surprise, the final question asking where we believed Red Bull fell short had more votes criticizing the company’s under-engagement with social projects than votes against the Austrian government for its feeble control of the health and environmental effects of the drink and its production methods. Hence, this method of “audience involvement” so to speak offers telling indications about the attitudes of the viewers as well as of the perhaps hidden biases of the reportage. Called by Dossier the “greatest entrepreneurial success story that Austria has seen so far”, Red Bull, the statement continues, is “better known than the Danube Waltz, sells better than Sachertorte, and gets around more of the world than the Vienna Boys’ Choir. It is more valuable than Swarovski, more daring than ski legend Hermann Maier, and towers over the Grossglockner [Austria’s highest mountain]”. Recherche Show began with the actors focusing on the sensual aspects by which the product is identified: “When l think of Red Bull, I think of this sound (the can’s pull-tab is wrenched backwards and we hear the pop), this smell (they sniff), this taste (they grimace).” Evidently, they were somewhat repulsed by Austria’s best success story.

 

L-to-r: Pia Herzagger, Martina Zinner, Julia Franz Richter in Recherche Show.
Credit: Nikolaus Ostermann

 

Quite quickly after this opening, Dossier was represented on screen by the cheerful presence of its deputy editor-in-chief Georg Eckelsberger via Zoom. He showed us the report entitled “Red Bull: Unsweetened Stories” which was the backbone of the magazine’s article. Eckelsberger was the pacer, helping to keep the show moving from one critical point to the next. But, in order to maintain at least the fiction of dramatic exchanges, the actors in the Volkstheater spruced up the research reports by casting the socially-distanced studio actors as oppositional characters. The middle-aged man Rupert Lehofer was very pro-Red Bull and its owner. “I like the idea of him having all that money,” he says about Mateschitz in a projection of naivety that continues with him consuming a pretzel stick that he’d used symbolically to represent one of the numerous football players who are associated with the five international football clubs owned by Mateschitz. It is this actor who wishes he were “part of that family of people sponsored by Red Bull”, but we learn that ironically several extreme sportsmen sponsored by Red Bull (in total Mateschitz owns eleven sports teams) have died in accidents and there have been over a hundred lawsuits worldwide claiming the decease of heavy Red Bull consumers was linked directly to this habit; the cases have been settled out of court.

The females are the young Pia Hierzegger who plays the role of an investigate journalist wanting to go beneath carefully controlled corporate images and who asks all the biting questions, Martina Zinner who reads aloud her simple poems inspired by the themes of the show, and Julia Franz Richter, playing an actress who admits to accepting a role in a Servus-TV film for the good pay. She now feels ashamed. Eckelsberger, just a Zoom screen away in the city of Vienna, keeps the focus off greed or guilt, however, by directing attention to the environmental issues that will haunt the future. Dossier claims that “the climate crisis and pandemic do not fit into a world like that of Red Bull. The biggest change is only just ahead of the company: the end of the Mateschitz era.”

The dramatization of the critical report on Red Bull by the Recherche Show, directed by Ed Hauswirth, went down easily. It’s a clever way to spotlight the need to transition between a dying past of unaccountability and the dawning consciousness of the environmental demands of the future.