Isabella Rothberg[1]

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Theatertreffen in Berlin, Germany, May 2013.

”Get back on stage and stick to Tolstoy!”

A man in the audience is evidently irritated by the jokes and the loose adaption of the classic War and Peace and speaks his mind there and then.

What is this? I am thinking to myself. I cannot remember when something like this has happened during a show in Finland.

My collegue who has been coming to Berlin since the early 1990s is not that suprised. He has seen much more dramatic stuff in the past. And the boos and the bravos that drown the show in the end are not that particular either. It’s all part of the game.

Centraltheater Leipzig and Ruhrfestspiele Recklinghausen presented a new adaption of Tolstoy's War and Peace. Photo R. Arnold /Centraltheater
Centraltheater Leipzig and Ruhrfestspiele Recklinghausen presented a new adaption of Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
Photo R. Arnold /Centraltheater

Theatertreffen is a ”Best of German Theatre” festival, but provoking the audience is also an essential part when planning the selection. And some audience members are obviously there to be provoked‒the angry gentleman, for example, did endure all five hours of the mindless deconstruction of Tolstoy, directed by Sebastian Hartmann and presented by Centraltheater Leipzig and Ruhrfestspiele Recklinghausen.

For me, coming to the festival for the first time, these unwritten rules are the most fascinating part of the event.

I am seldom literally lost in translation since almost all of the biggest shows have English surtitles. Other things confuse me. For instance when I am attending a staged reading and find myself in a milieu that could be a set from the popular American TV series Mad Men. ”Stückemarkt” is the name of the event, which has been organised in parallell with the festival for 35 years. It is here that new and old playwrights get their works read by professional actors. This year, the event is held in the Pan Am Lounge, a retro bar where old-school stewards and stewardesses are welcoming the crowd. I pay five euros for my coffee and get three fake dollars in return.

The playful setting has to do with the festival’s 50th anniversary. Theatertreffen started out as a cultural bridge between West Berlin and Western Europe. An important stategy for the politicians in charge during the Cold War.

The feeling of missing out hits me often. I was not here during the 1990s when Volksbühne was hip and happening and Frank Castorf was the king in town. Neither was I here during the 1980s when Berlin was still divided and probably even hipper than in the ’90s.

Standing before German theatre history is like standing before the Ishtar Gate in the Pergamon Museum—where should one start?

Something fishy is going on in Elfriede Jelinek's shopping district. Photo Julian Röder
Something fishy is going on in Elfriede Jelinek’s shopping district. Photo Julian Röder

History is a theme in this edition of Theatertreffen. War and chaos. Playwrights who are participating in the drama readings were given the topic ”The decline and fall of western civilzation,” a title borrowed from Edward Gibbon’s famous work on the Roman empire (1788). Some kind of decadent destruction is about to take place on Elfriede Jelinek’s shopping street in Die Strasse. Die Stadt. Der Überfall, a hilarious, spot-on picture of consumer society, by director Johan Simons and the Munich Kammerspiele.

Still, is it really a real destruction? Or is crisis the thing that makes history evolve? Luk Perceval’s adaption for Theater Hamburg of Hans Fallada’s famous novel, Alone in Berlin (Jeder stirbt für sich allein, originally 1947, English 2009,. unabridged in German 2011), shows people choosing different paths in Nazi Germany, and tosses the question back to the audience: What would you have done in a similar situation?

Luk Perceval portrays war time society in his stage adaption of Hans Falladas's novel, Alone in Berlin. Photo Kraft Angerer
Luk Perceval portrays war time society in his stage adaption of Hans Falladas’s novel, Alone in Berlin. Photo Kraft Angerer

As I am writing this, I am thinking of how lucky I am to have the opportunity to see all these spectacles and pyrotechnic tricks. These rich scenographies are the most eye-catching difference between Finnish and German theatre. Yes, I am very lucky. The comet has not struck the Earth yet, I still have time to admire the ornamental details in the beautiful blue gate.


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[1] Isabella Rothberg writes about theatre for the Swedish-language newspaper Hufvudstadsbladet in Helsinki, Finland.

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Whistles and Shouts in Berlin