Theatre in Vienna and Berlin: vision & scale

Laura Ginters

Der Idiot

Der Idiot

Der Idiot

Last year, Cornelia Niedermeyer (Theater der Zeit, January 2002) described Viennese theatre as a “geriatric institution”, populated by the elderly on both sides of the stage—and heavily reliant on the classics in its unadventurous programming. The “theatre miracle” that Vienna is supposed to be enjoying rests, she claims, on a small number of great productions at the Burgtheater, usually by visiting directors such as Peter Zadek and Luc Bondy who’ve made their mark (and indeed had their own theatres) in Berlin.

This Vienna/Berlin rivalry is nothing new, nor is the aging of both theatre-makers and their audiences in the German-speaking countries. And it is true, too, that some of the least interesting theatre I saw recently in both cities were classics produced at major theatres such as the Burgtheater in Vienna and Berlin’s famous Berliner Ensemble. At the same time, though, there is much going on in theatres in both cities that indicate a far from moribund scene.

Thus, while Schiller’s Maria Stuart at the Burgtheater (director Andrea Breth) failed to excite—a stately, static talkfest—a production of Beckett’s Happy Days at the Akademietheater was, conversely, a treat. It starred and was directed by 2 of the legendary actresses from Peter Stein’s glory days at the Berlin Schaubühne, Jutta Lampe and Edith Clever respectively: of pensionable age they may well be, but geriatic? Not in the slightest. Lampe was a very glamorous Winnie, her hair the blond of the sand pile she is buried in, her strapless evening dress the colour of the endless sky which floods the set’s backdrop. The production was beautifully lit—Winnie’s earthen mound transforming from golden sand to polluted dirt as the play progresses and she deteriorates and disappears before our eyes. Lampe, ill with the flu, was nevertheless captivating, her beautiful voice totally appealing in both senses of the word, embracing us and drawing us into the logic of her bizarre world.

Australians, incidentally are more than making their own mark in Vienna: at the Schauspielhaus Barrie Kosky had Paul Capsis in cabaret, Elena Kats-Chernin composed Maria Stuart for the Burg and Beverley Blankenship’s production of Phèdre, in a new and abbreviated verse translation by Simon Werle, was impressing audiences at the Volksbühne. This last was a totally satisfying exercise in elegant restraint, which demonstrated a profound understanding of the way (following Anne Ubersfeld) space is critically inscribed in the text.

George Tabori’s wickedly black farce, Mein Kampf, takes place in the men’s hostel in which the young Adolf Hitler lived when he first came to Vienna. Hitler is befriended by Schlomo Herzl, an itinerant Jewish bookseller, who looks after the newcomer, sometimes gently mocking, but never retaliating, even as the naïve and gormless youth transforms into the more ruthless and vicious personality we know.

This production actually took place in that very hostel, which is still operating, though there are plans to close it, relocate it even further from the city and—Sydneysiders will recognise this phenomenon—build new apartments on the site. Directors Tina Leisch and Hubis Kramar wanted to work with the residents before this happened. The cast is made up of both professional actors and the men whose home this is: they top and tail each scene with their own stories and experiences—and the production concludes with the rounding up and removal of these “undesirables.”

It was a slightly surreal experience to sit among both the destitute men and the affluent, middle class audience members slumming it for the evening. While the theatre-makers clearly were passionate about the nature of a society which pushes its poorest and most disenfranchised to its margins, well out of sight, and the repercussions this can have, I didn’t sense too much self-reflection going on in the audience.

And so on to Hitler’s other favourite capital city. Berlin: the city is broke, poor, in dire straits. This is the cry on everyone’s lips, especially those working in the cultural sphere. And while things are clearly worse than when I lived there 8 years ago with closures of theatres and diminishing subsidies, funding for the arts in Berlin alone (a city the same size as Sydney) is still around 10 times what the Australia Council spends nationally. But the subsidised theatres (and there are a lot of them) still have the money to think big—bigger than Australian companies can, with the exception of the occasional festival splurge. With permanent ensembles, casts of 18 are a possibility. And set designers can rebuild an entire theatre for a production.

The Schaubühne, run by a young and enthusiastic directorate, is pumping out some exciting work and developing international collaborations: following his Sydney successes with the Schaubühne’s resident writers David Gieselmann (Mister Kolpert) and Marius von Mayerburg (Fireface) Benedict Andrews will also be guest directing there this year.

The Schaubühne production of Roland Schimmelpfennig’s Push Up 1-3 was a revelation in translating across cultures. When it was workshopped and presented at the 2002 ANPC Conference in Canberra, the Australian actors were astonished to be told (by the play’s translator and original dramaturg) that this was, in fact, a comedy. This series of dialogues, interspersed with freezeframe monologues is set in the ruthless and dehumanising environment of the headquarters of a multinational corporation. Initially, to the Australian actors, it just seemed grim—the German production pushes it into the realm of semi-repressed hysteria, revelling in the grossness of physical excess and that uncomfortable zone where we laugh in uneasy recognition of our less attractive traits.

A stunning guest production from the Belgian company Het Toneelhuis also featured at the Schaubühne. L King of Pain, Luk Perceval’s massively truncated version of King Lear, concentrates exclusively on the family dynamics of the piece—hence, presumably the set design (Katrin Brack): one enormous tree with exposed roots in an otherwise gigantic, stripped stage space. Lear wants to relinquish the burden of power and with his band of rabble-rousing knights, spend the kids’ inheritance. It was an anarchic, chaotic and breathtaking performance, especially from Thomas Thieme as the violent, inappropriately affectionate, Alzheimers’-delusional father/ruler. (I noted, however, that the German sense of humour did fail here—an icy silence followed this joke: “What’s the high point of recycling? A German eating pork.”) And here’s another international difference—it was performed in Flemish, French and German with no surtitles.

Also at the Schaubühne was Tankred Dorst’s Merlin oder das wüste Land (Merlin or the desolate country), a retelling of part of the King Arthur legend, directed by Bernhard Kosminski. What was striking about this performance (apart from the 18 performers plus live musicians) was the imaginative and powerful set (Florian Etti). The audience was seated in an L-shape around a 3 storey, 14-sided hollow metal column, perhaps 15 metres in diameter, with gangways into the audience and ladders connecting the floors. A central platform (Arthur’s round table) in the internal shaft functioned as an elevator, raising and lowering the flat playing space. It was an exercise in stamina for the actors as they ranged across all the possible playing spaces this design offered.

Elsewhere in Berlin independent practitioners have found a home at the Sophiensäle. It’s run along the lines of Sydney’s Performance Space, producing and supporting independent artists, which makes it unique in Germany. Artistic Director Amelie Deuflhard has especially encouraged one young group, Nico and the Navigators, whose members trained in the visual arts, but are developing their own brand of physical theatre—not a commonly recognised form in Germany. Despite its unfamiliarity, their work is nonetheless attracting a following there and their production, Der Familienrat (The Family Council), is an adroit look at family relations, assisted by a clever, manipulable set (Oliver Proske) which progressively reveals and conceals spaces, stairs and compartments which the actors use to surprise and engage their audience.

One of the anticipated highlights of my stay was Heiner Müller’s acclaimed production of Brecht’s Arturo Ui at the Berliner Ensemble—still in repertoire 7 years after Müller’s death and still with the stunning Martin Wuttke (who won actor of the year for his portrayal) in the title role. But times change, as do ensembles, artistic directors and, indeed, the reputation of even illustrious companies. Wuttke is no longer a company member, having moved on to Frank Castorf’s Volksbühne after Claus Peymann, long term Artistic Director of the Burgtheater, took up the directorship of the Berliner Ensemble. And at the last moment Wuttke was unable to perform—he was deep in last minute rehearsals around the corner at the Volksbühne for the premiere of Der Idiot, Castorf’s third epic adaptation of a Dostoyevsky novel (following Demons and The Insulted and Injured).

Those at the Berliner Ensemble (distinctly unimpressed by Wuttke’s unavailability) served up instead a performance of Lessing’s 18th century morality play, Nathan der Weise (Nathan the Wise), directed by Peymann. A production intended to be both political and topical in its message of tolerance between Christians, Jews and Muslims, it was nevertheless a pedestrian, mannered and mind-numbingly literal (down to colour coding by costume: blue for Muslims, red for Christians etc) production. I rather suspect it was intended to introduce school children to a classic of the stage they ‘should’ know—but in effect was more likely to drive them from the theatre forever. And as an example of the “political theatre” Peymann promised to bring to the Berliner Ensemble, I expect it’s set the theatre’s founder spinning in his grave.

While I had to make do with a video of Arturo Ui, all was forgiven when I had the chance to see Der Idiot. Castorf is widely held to be one of the most exciting directors working in Germany and the Volksbühne was definitely the favourite stage of the young theatre enthusiasts I met in Berlin. Der Idiot was 6 hours long with one 20-minute interval—and totally riveting, even in the really boring bits.

The company had, in the leadup to the new theatre season, announced its departure from Berlin for “Neustadt”…and “Newtown” was what was, in fact, constructed in the stage and auditorium of the theatre: an entire town with cafes, pubs, apartment blocks, a motel and hairdresser and so on. The audience was seated on a huge revolve on the former stage, on 3 storey scaffolding which looked, intentionally, rather like the reverse of a film set. An extraordinary design by Bert Neumann.

The 16 actors performed throughout the town and the audience swivelled to follow the actors. But not all the time. A crew of video camera operators filmed all the action and this was fed, live, on about a dozen monitors visible to the audience. Although sometimes the actors played directly in front of the audience, often they didn’t. Sometimes we caught glimpses of them between the curtains of a flat, 2 levels up, sometimes they were in the hairdresser’s which we could only see from the outside. This made for a weird, totally compelling viewing experience which simultaneously made you literally rethink how you look at performance and what it is to be a spectator. A Verfremdungseffekt as Brecht could never have anticipated. What do you watch? The actor or the screen? What if you can’t see the actor—but can still hear them? Do you stare at the fluorescent sign outside the hairdresser’s, or do you succumb to the voyeuristic and ambivalent pleasures of the small screen? And after an hour in the hairdresser’s, it dawns on you afresh just how boring bad video can be. By this stage you’re desperate for that elusive, much debated, whatever-it-is that live presence delivers and mediatised performance cannot.

The actors too had fun with this conceit: a collection of some of the best in the country, they could play effortlessly with genres: mainstage German theatre acting directly to the audience? No problem. Soap opera acting for the camera inside a flat over a dinner with tensions running high? Sure. Self-conscious ‘I’m pretending the cameras aren’t there and there’s no one watching’; Big Brother moments when the “live action” is elsewhere? Why not?

The company’s dramaturg Carl Hegemann, exhilarated after the first 2 performances, told me that it was worth it—go all out with one production and live (modestly) with the financial consequences for the rest of the year (modest being a relative term, of course!). I agree; so, are there any Australian festival directors out there with huge vision—and a budget to match—to bring this masterpiece across the world?

Laura Ginters was the recipient of a Goethe Institut scholarship for cultural workers which funded her stay in Berlin.

RealTime issue #53 Feb-March 2003 pg. 9-1

© Laura Ginters; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2003