Theatertreffen, in its 49th Year in May 2012, was founded as an exclusively German-language event (‘treffen’ means ‘meeting’) and, while it never propagated Cold-War attitudes, it was undoubtedly affected by Berlin’s geopolitical position. The existence of the Berlin Wall was a reminder, too, of the loss of a German-speaking ‘famililal’ whole, and, as well, of the sensation felt by most Berliners in the early 1960s that they were living on something of an island surrounded by alien forces. Theatertreffen, then, was a form of temporary unification where the best of culturally close groups, by virtue of being German-speaking, could celebrate their common commitments to and through the theatre.
The spirit of Theatertreffen has, of course, shifted over the years with the changing times, and today there is little evidence of whatever previous anxieties regarding politics and identity lay beneath its successful surface, however well hidden they may have been. Theatertreffen is a celebration composed of many parts: talks; public interviews; seminars; post-show congratulatory certificates to all performers and directors; film screenings of selected productions in Berlin’s state-of-the-art Sony Centre; press conferences; older critics confabulating; newer critics blogging on an official site; play readings; and prizes. All this, inevitably, is a matter of cultural activity together with networking, but it all revolves, as it must, around the rich work offered on the stage.
In 2012, the Festival under the directorship of Yvonne Büdenhölzer and Thomas Oberender, the artistic director of the Berliner Festpiele, showed ten productions selected for their exceptional qualities by a Jury renewed annually. Two highly prestigious prizes were awarded to actors Sophie Rois and Fabian Hinrichs. Rois performed in the Festival’s Die (s)panische Fliege (The Spanish Fly – with a pun in German for ‘Spanish and ’panic’) directed by Herbert Fritsch at the Volskbühne in former East Berlin. Hinrichs was the quasi one-man performer, backed by a ‘chorus’ of acrobats, ofKill your Darlings! Streets of Berladelphia (title originally in English), directed by René Pollesch, also from the Volksbühne. The third prize, the 3sat prize, went to Nicolas Stemann, the young and dynamic director of the Thalia in Hamburg.
Stemann presented Faust I and II, that is, the whole of Goethe’s text in two parts, bringing the production in at the end of eight and a half hours of performance. This is certainly in the tradition of the long haul established by the path-breaking directors of the 1970s and the 1980s (think of Brook, Stein, Mnouchkine, Wilson); and, in any case, German directors generally like duration, since they are aware of the advantages of extended time both for the development of a piece as it is being performed and for the way it draws in and absorbs audiences. Stemann is not an exception in this as he rivets the attention of his spectators, first with an essentially densely verbal Faust I and then with a visually and physically flamboyant Faust II after an interval. Faust II is as full of different artistic forms – poems, opera-like structures, chorus singing, phantasms, visions and dreams – as Goethe’s wildly inventive play. Stemann, in other words, does not shy away from Goethe’s joy in hybrid composition.
‘Riveting’ is not an overstatement for a three-hour Faust I that, perhaps surprisingly, given Stemann’s reputation for unconventional gestures (he also leads a well known rock band), is heavily depended on words and their moral and philosophical content. Faust and Mephistopheles are here in dialogue (Philipp Hochmair and Sebastian Rudolph), for the most part seated. But the sheer focus, facility and liveliness of their speech commands attention, despite the fact that their deceptive relative stillness is twice interrupted by the actor-Faust when he walks up a sloped panel stretching across the first ten rows of seats in the auditorium. While doing this, he ostentatiously pulls on the lead of a microphone, addressing the audience through it. The image quite specifically refers to Stemann’s involvement in the entertainment business.
Speech, which is frequently sardonic, stands out all the more because of the production’s austere setting. There is nothing but a computer, a table and the frame of a door – nothing, really, to detract from the Word. The door is wheeled in by an actor who doubles as a stagehand and who wears small red horns lit up by lights within them. These devilish horns are a piece of amusing kitsch in the office-like asceticism of the stage design. The transparent door frames a young boy singing, who looks like a ghost. It subsequently frames Gretchen in her various appearances; and Patrycia Ziolkowska in the role catches the ear with her fresh and clean delivery. Above all, it is the brotherly affection between Faust and Mephistopheles, who are doubles of each other down to the last detail of dress that is compelling and prepares spectators, as Goethe prepares his readers, for their increasing collusion in Faust II.
Faust II, by contrast with the discretion of Faust I, is a great feast, all of its variety in hyperbolic mode. There are weird and wonderful film sequences and shadow-play effects that suggest Faust’s encounters with flying witches and other supernatural entities during his travels with Mephistopheles; signs and slogans on which are plastered words like ‘Profit’, ‘Geld’ (Money) and ‘Kunst und Kultur’ (Art and Culture) and which pick up several Goethe motifs while indicating a contemporary critical perspective on them; video screens; cabarets; jazz; blazing machine-guns when Faust meets workers fighting against Capital; paper money, printed by a devil-inventor, that showers the stage; ballet dancers (some in drag); an opera singer, who sings from Carmen and Norma, notably ‘Casta Diva’, in a parodic way; outsize puppets; wall-size photographs taken from the air of a sky-scraper metropolis; and, at the end , a huge party, with Stemann playing himself as a rock star.
This cornucopia is a panorama of our times, presented with a satirical edge. Yet none of it is too serious, and it is certainly not didactic within the German lineage, which features Piscator and Brecht. Rather, it evokes a feeling of recognition, of a world that is familiar and to be taken as it is. In it appears a woman in trousers and heavy make-up announcing that she is Goethe; another comes in as an ordinary Helen of Troy. There are scenes in a demonic cabaret where a variety of devils wear red, lit-up horns while the boss – Mephistopheles – swans around and another sings and plays the piano. There are also cloying scenes of suburban middle-class bliss in which Faust plays at being a good father until his cocooned existence is shattered by the death of his child. Throughout, spectators register allusions to current affairs in Germany with laughter. However, the production seems to be saying that laughter, like any other response it elicits, simply confirms what is because the times for alternative visions of society and for anything like radical change are well and truly gone.
A similar sense of the familiar in the here and now to be taken as it is governs Theater Bonn’s An Enemy of the People directed by Lukas Langhoff. Stockman, performed by Falilou Seck, is an outsider because of his ethnicity, which is directly communicated by the actor’s very appearance. Furthermore, by casting Seck in the principal role, the production transfers the dilemmas faced by Ibsen’s character to continuing debates in Germany today on multiculturalism. This is reinforced by the quotation in the programme of Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Breivik’s speech on his ‘hate and contempt for cultural Marxists/multiculturalist doctrines.’ Such supplementary information is, of course, beyond the performance, and the problems raised by the performance are not tied up with the intentions, implied or stated, by programme notes. They are embodied in what actually happens in action. There is plenty of water in a bucket from which Stockman’s wife washes the floor. There is, as well, an oversize transparent tank full of water against which, at production’s close, the male characters are pressed to give the illusion that they or are drowning or have drowned. These are surely references to Ibsen’s plot, but what they have to do with the TV chat-show line-up of the male characters, or a 1950s-style country-and-western female guitarist, or a gigantic foot-as-sculpture that dominates the stage is anybody’s guess. Not surprisingly, the bloggers panned the show.
Equally curious in its apparent randomness is Macbeth directed by Karin Henkel from the Münchner Kammerspiele. The novelty, as understood by word-of-mouth commentary, was Macbeth played by a woman. A somewhat androgynous Jana Schultz in the role commands the stage with confidence. So, too, do Katja Bürkle as Lady Macbeth and Kate Strong in various roles including Macduff’s son and a witch. However, the male actors do not match these strong female presences, who, in any case, are detached from what they do. Schultz picks up and puts down a microphone, or else she gets up on a chair with a paper crown on her head. At other times, she sits on the floor displaying her masculine trousers and shoes, or she squats on the huge bed at the back of the stage, which signifies the chamber of horrors where Duncan is killed. Witches in ballerina dresses gather around a box-like contraption, and one of them climbs up on its narrow ledges. Clearly, the production wishes to avoid interpretation. It does not make any ‘statement.’ It is neither tragic nor comic. In fact, it is not empathetic or open to pathos of any kind. The trend to make theatre without pathos has been evident in Germany for some time, and Macbeth is probably most accurately perceived when viewed through this lens.
Macbeth might be an example of aesthetics of the ugly when compared with the stylization of the Sarah Kane double bill Cleansed and 4.48 Psychosis. The pair was also presented by the Münchner Kammerspiele, but was directed, this time, by Dutch-born Johan Simons. Not that the stylized quality of these two pieces is beautiful in the manner, say, of Robert Wilson (although there is a Wilson touch in the light and colours of Cleansed). Overt violence and sudden sharp acts of brutality, particularly in Cleansed, intentionally vitiate the production’s visual appeal. Cleansing rain at the end of the performance, accompanied by whimsical balloon-like, cloud-like shapes might be charming, but it is a long, long way from Kane’s tough universe. Equally far from it is the mellow sextet of 4.48 Psychosis in relation to which Kane’s protagonist performs, ambiguously belonging and not belonging to the instrumental ensemble. A man who loudly and aggressively reads Kane’s playscript counterpoints the ambient lyricism. Yet the long distance away from Kane’s suffering is precisely what Simons is after as if to argue against her, or to save her from suicidal pain, or to resuscitate her with music. It is an unusual approach and sensitive and generous on a human level, but it is not necessarily in tune with the spirit of these works in theatrical terms.
If theatre without pathos is one main trend of contemporary German theatre, ‘non-theatre’, whether in its verbatim-theatre form, or as docu-drama or as performance-by-non-professional-actors is another such trend. As is well known, the latter version has been especially well promoted in the past decade and more by the three-director collective Rimini Protocol. The Anglo-German collective Gob Squad has effectively disseminated ‘non-theatre’, as well. Gob Squad’s Before Your Very Eyes, in co-production with CAMPO, Gent, and the Hebbel Theatre am Ufer in Berlin, was part of Theatertreffen. It was performed by a group of younger adolescents from Gent (seven of them, unless these eyes cannot count), who assume imaginary selves as they grow older. They go through youthful party-time, studies, marriage, parenthood, divorce and old age, all with the help of make-up and bits of costume. All of it takes place in a large, closed cubicle, while TV monitors record what goes on in it and a voice off asks interview-style questions. The impression is that of reality TV. The youngsters who reply to these questions are filmed and projected as the questioning occurs; and this is a self-reflexive device, possibly designed both to affirm that this is an ordinary affair and to reveal the performance-making process itself. There is no mystery, in other words, in the construction of ‘art.’
Even so, Gob Squad’s remit to seek and find what is attractive in everyday life – its aim is to break down the distinction between life and theatre – is here challenged by the obvious artificiality of the display: youngsters in false moustaches and beards and with put-on adult voices and mannerisms look and sound silly – so much so that you wonder why this company devoted to collectively devised work bothered to go down the treacherous path of fake ‘reality.’
It could be that Gob Squad is poking fun at the famous British television series ‘Seven Up’, first filmed by Granada Television in 1964. Director Michael Asped selected fourteen children from diverse social backgrounds and traced their lives every seven years thereafter, leading to the most recent ‘56 Up’ of 2006. It could be the case. But where Asped’s series is full of life’s own ironies – some heartbreaking, as flashes back to seven, or fourteen and more years back demonstrate – Before Your Very Eyes is only concocted irony which, ultimately, trivialises its subject and the children who play it.
Quite fortuitously, Hate Radio, another stab at another kind of reality show, this one with doses of more or less verbatim life-as-it-is naturalism, also happens in a large cubicle. This is the soundproof studio of a radio station. Swiss-born director Milo Rau, who has considerable experience as a journalist, focuses on a real-life Belgian journalist’s use of Hate Radio in Rwanda to incite the ethnic and racial violence at the heart of the 1994 genocide of the Tutsi by the Hutu. Billed as being in collaboration with the International Institute of Political Murder, the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre and Hebbel am Ufer – HAU 2, where it was premiered in December 2011, the production is nothing if not hard-hitting in its assembly of the facts of what was said on the air and how it was done. Off-broadcast conversations between the three broadcasters in the studio, two of them Rwanda nationals, are integral to the politics of death propagated by them.
Spectators undergo the re-enactment of the broadcast in English and French through earphones, with German translation provided. Surtitles move between the languages, and also communicate whatever other information is necessary. Apart from earphones, surtitles, and the equipment of the studio required for transmission, technology is used to show images, in different sizes and in different configurations, of victims. Several of these Rwandese recount their experiences of mass extermination. The particular rather than the general is thus foreground. It throws into relief, as well, the virulent but abstract hatred generated inside the studio. The enclosed space, the earphones, filmed people rather than live appearances, and so on, keep the spectators at some distance and their emotions at bay. The horror of the genocide speaks to rational understanding (but can this be done without empathy?), and the production ends with the message central to it: ‘If there is one genocide, there will be many more.’
On a different note altogether was Kill Your Darlings! On the Streets of Berladelphia. This Pollesch work has Hinrichs functioning as a soloist backed by the chorus of acrobats referred to at the beginning of this overview. Structurally speaking, it recalls popular music, which is more of the crooney, old-fashioned kind than, say, heavy metal; and in such instances the lead singer takes all, while his back-up fills out the sound. Hinrichs takes all, even though the acrobats are virtuosic and so capable of quite astonishing feats. Nevertheless, he holds the limelight precisely because he presents himself as a show-biz star. In this general image of ‘star’ is to be found a host of entrainment and celebrity-culture personages all rolled into one – a kind of archetype of the contemporary wanna-be scene. First and foremost among them is the full-on, voluble TV presenter, the prototype of modern narcissism.
Of course, Hinrichs is a consciously burlesque version of the prototype. It could not be otherwise for Pollesch whose clever, tongue-in-cheek, anti-art and ‘post-dramatic’ constructions have been his hallmark as both a writer and a director; and he is both in this production. Into the fray step his witticisms on topical subjects, many referring to current political issues. Among them is his stream-of-consciousness monologue on the failings of socialism, the failings of capitalism and the impossibility of finding the right solution to the ‘social problem.’ At one point, rather than swirl his long microphone lead around the stage, or pace about it in semi-circles, Hinrichs begins to pull on an unpainted wooden wagon which is the replica of the one used by Brecht’s Mother Courage.
This wagon was, until then, the only item in an otherwise bare setting, and it seemed to be merely iconic. However, once Hinrichs begins to drag it around the stage, it acquires resonance from his political diatribe, which he delivers with the aplomb and some of the underlying hysteria of celebrity shows. The message regarding opportunistic capitalism à la Mother Courage is clear. Over and above it is Pollesch’s discourse on the individual and the collectivity. It recalls, unless I have seriously misheard the text, bits from Brecht’s The Measures Taken.
Meanwhile, as Hinrichs does his star turn, the chorus goes about its own acrobatic business, running a performance in parallel rather than one that is interconnected with his. Occasionally, this group will jump or leap, almost as if to suggest that it is entering into ‘dialogue’ through movement with Hinrich’s volley of words. Occasionally, it takes on the role of citizens, much as happens in the chorus of Greek tragedy, except that these citizens are Capitalists. But, for the most part, the chorus, whether as Capitalists or other entities, does its own thing, no more so than when water is splashed about the stage and everybody ducks and dives in it. Some swim along the stage on their chests; others dangerously slide on the water. Hinrichs joins in the playtime splash. Perhaps the main point of all this is cynical: nothing much can be done about the state of the world, anyway, so one might as well take an individualistic position and hang the consequences. It is hard to say, and hard to gauge the production’s balance of interests, but its buoyancy is engaging throughout.
Pollesch, although not considered to be a conventional, mainstream figure, has had strong institutional support from the Volksbühne with which his name is now indelibly associated. He has similarly enjoyed the personal support of Frank Castorf, the theatre’s artistic and managing director. Like Herbert Fritsch, then, he can be described as being part of the directorial ‘stable’ of the Volksbühne. Fritsch, unlike Pollesch, who is very much a writer-director, has a considerable actor’s history at this theatre (from the 1990s until 2007), and has come to directing late in his career. This is the reason why, on the cusp of 60 years old, he can joke about himself as a ‘young’ director.
The Spanish Fly, a farce by Franz Arnold and Ernst Bach, premiered in 1913 In the tradition of crazy farces about sex, obsession and deception, it gives Fritsch, who loves comedies, a golden opportunity to go for broke and laugh as much as he can. The production is fantastically inventive. Two trampolines camouflaged at the back of the stage allow the most hilarious effects as actors run headlong onto them, or crash off them, or struggle to stay on them – all this in the full flight of dialogue. Furthermore, since the actors have to manoeuvre a slope made out of carpets in front of the trampolines (this is the main camouflage), their leaps and bounds are all the more exhilarating for being extremely dangerous.
Women with huge beehive hairdos are, at times, dragged by their hairdos, and drag men, in turn, by their ties. Or, rather, beehive women attempt to drag them as they refuse to budge. In such cases, as in many others devised by Fritsch, the mirth comes from outlandish situations and gestures in the juxtaposition of opposing tensions and opposing intentions. Some of it is played deadpan, some with false naivety and some with exaggerated mimicry. Men’s suits and women’s dresses are bright yellow and orange. Moustaches are way too long. All round, all the details spark off laughter, and the work is fast, precise, and happy in its own fun.
‘Fun’ is not the word for the twelve hours of John Gabriel Borkman on the night I saw it. However, it was certainly engrossing, even though one of its ghastly sequences – a ceaseless massacre by machine-gun fire of white-painted, naked bodies – sent me out for fresh air. They were still at it when I came back: the killers in a line, marching in from the wings like robots, who fire and spray blood-red paint, and then exit in the same monotonous rhythm, only to loop back in from their point of entry. The gory scene certainly pushes spectator tolerance to see how far it can go before it goes too far. And perhaps there was a secret moral test behind the provocation: Just how much bloodshed are people willing to take before they say ‘enough’? After all, simulation, even animated-cartoon-like simulation as this, semiotically conjures up its referent – in this case, carnage, as recognised from reality. At what point does witnessing become collusion?
Another question that arises is whether the production’s highly contrived massacre is meant to evoke the massacre perpetrated by Anders Breivik in July 2011 on the island of Utøya near Oslo. (The production was premiered at the Volksbühne’s Prater theatre in October 2011.) The question cannot help but be asked given that John Gabriel Borkman is a devised work, in German, led by a trio of directors from Norway. They are Vegard Vinge, Ida Müller and Trond Reinholdsten; and it was co-produced by the Volksbühne, the Norsk Kulturråd and the Nordwind Platform and Festival based in Berlin. The work’s collective of creators, which includes Norwegian and German actors, decide pretty well spontaneously every night which sections of their opus they will perform. The show I saw began with at least one hour’s worth of words recited according to the alphabet from a dictionary. A previous performance began with the recitation of numbers. Another performance stopped after two or so hours. In other words, a performance is conceived as a game of chance, like throwing a dice, and this also affects the sequence in which spectators see the production’s component parts.
Numerous spectators, including myself, observed that they had never seen anything like it. Indeed, how does one get a grip on this work’s myriad of vaguely resonant but not altogether placeable components? Further, to complicate matters, all of them are in a jigsaw whose pieces do not even look as if they will fit. Eventually, the fragments that have to do with the narrative of Ibsen’s play more or less connect, but the interest is not so much in the connection as in the intervening massive amount of performance material generated as play proceeds. Play is not always direct or ‘live.’ It is frequently filmed in a booth beneath the bank of seats holding the audience and it is projected onto a screen that drops down, when necessary. One such sequence concerns close-ups of endless defecation in what can only be a test of the spectators’ tolerance thresholds.
John Gabriel Borkman’s greatest novelty is the consistently animated-cartoon style of the whole; and the cartoon is a zany mixture of an extremely elaborate mode of illustration reminiscent of the Katzenjammer Kids comics (created in the USA early in the twentieth century by a German immigrant) and of video-clip spoofs of zombie and other horror/alien moving images. The latter applies particularly to the trio made up of the titular hero, his wife, Mrs Borkman, and her sister, Ella Rentheim. Sandwiched between the mother-sister duo of monsters, who look as if they have been cut out of cardboard, is Erhart Borkman, who is presented as a comic-strip child. These figures shuffle rather than walk (hence ‘zombie’) and their speech – apparently pre-recorded – is denaturalised and deformed by a synthesizer or other technological means, as occurs in animation, or, for that matter, in video games. The cartoon-world sets (with echoes of scary fairy-tale) are, in actual fact, made out of cardboard, and, at one point, are torn down and destroyed. Whichever way it is ultimately described, the cartoon ethos of John Gabriel Borkman is really quite unique. Its anarchism is not.
Platonov from the Burgtheater in Vienna and directed by the Latvian Alvis Hermanis appears altogether conservative when set beside John Gabriel Borkman. This having been said, however, it is a beautifully crafted example of classically constructed, dramaturgically logical, and directorially coherent theatre. Hermanis’s achievement is all the more noteworthy because Chekhov’s is a rambling, outsize play, as long as his four major plays put together, and it is anything but well structured. Hermanis is adept at dealing with the play’s aleatory episodes, making out of a dialogue between Platonov and Vengerovich, one of the butts of the other characters’ frequently anti-Semitic jokes, a scene of such finely tuned comedy that it pre-empts any potential nastiness or offence. Platonov and Vengerovich are dead drunk, and the scene gets away with the risks it takes racially, but also with drunken behaviour, because the actors are nothing less than superb in their roles. The Volksbühne’s Martin Wuttke plays Platonov, while Michael König plays Vengerovich.
All the parts are performed with subtle, inwardly driven motives that are firmly expressed outwardly. Here Hermanis also proves his mastery as a director of psychological realism. Effects of light, sound, perspective, the relation between the indoors and the outdoors, and the significance of costumes and décor – all are integral to his feel for ensemble theatre. Platonov might seem an unusual choice, given the tenor of the Theatertreffen, as observed, at least, in these pages, but it defines its own place in the Festival’s constellation. With such strong and idiosyncratic showings in 2012, eyes will be on Berlin in 2013 to see whether and how the tide turns, if it turns in any way at all.
 Maria Shevtsova, author of numerous books and articles on theatre, is Professor at Goldsmiths, University of London, where she founded the MA Performance and Culture: Interdisciplinary Perspectives. She studied at the University of Sydney, the Institut d’Etudes Théâtrales, l’Université de Paris III, and the École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), also in Paris, and has taught in numerous international universities such as, among others, Paris, Sydney, Rome, Lancaster, Oslo, St. Petersburg, as well as at the Grotowski Institute. She was an elected member (1996-2004) of the Executive Committee of the International Federation for Theatre Research (IFTR/FIRT), and is currently a Fellow at the International Research Center at the Freie Universität in Berlin. She is co-editor of New Theatre Quarterly, published by Cambridge University Press, and a member of the Editorial Team of Critical Stages, the journal of the International Association of Theatre Critics. She also sits on the Advisory Board of Stanislavski Studies.