Hallo and wilkommen to the 55th Berliner Theatertreffen! You’re standing in the Haus der Berliner Festspiele, a plush arts venue in the west of the city, and for three weeks every May it is dedicated to the Theatertreffen, perhaps the most prestigious event in German theatre. As you can see, this year it’s decorated with icy blue and yellow neon lights, and if you spend an hour or two in its grassy courtyard you’ll overhear industry heavy-weights engaged in earnest discussions about aesthetics, while cherry blossoms fall in to your pilsner.
The way the festival works is this: a panel of judges invites the ten most ‘remarkable’ performances from the previous year to travel to Berlin. An invitation is an honour, and each production is ceremoniously awarded a prize. Outwith these ten performances, you’ll find a curated selection of discussions, workshops, and open-air screenings, as well as new writing and unusual works, often from international theatre makers.
On this tour we’ll encounter a few of the festival’s key themes, controversies and productions, and ask some answerable questions about publically funded festivals. So! Don your blackest turtleneck, say “post-dramatic” three times into a mirror, and let’s go see some theatre.
Legacy Acts – Faust and Trommeln in der Nacht
Our first stop is Faust directed by Frank Castorf, a legendarily controversial theatre-maker. For 25 years Castorf was creative director at the Volksbühne (a beloved and radical ensemble theatre), until last autumn when the city’s cultural senate (who fund the theatre and decide who runs it) replaced him Chris Dercon, a Belgian art curator formerly of the Tate. Protests were held, petitions were signed, staff walked out/lost their jobs as the theatre transitioned from a repertoire to a venue for touring work, and *allegedly* some human waste was left in a box. Dercon resigned after seven months, just weeks before Faust returned to the stage – a performance that many consider to be the Volksbühne’s swan-song. This gossipy, expensive debacle has been the butt of many jokes during the festival, and is essential context for Castorf’s meisterwerk.
On the opening night, red and white stickers reading “Frank comes home” tracked the short walk from the U-Bahn to the theatre. It cost half a million euro to fit Faust into the Festspiele, and it’s rumoured that each ticket is subsidised by E100. The seven hour show is broken by just one interval, and this length is standard for a Castorf production: the pace ebbs and flows, circling back on itself in nightmarish déjà vu. Castorf is famous for splicing canonical works (this time, Goethe’s Faust I + II) with a selection of texts (this time, Paul Celan’s Death Fugue, Emile Zola’s Nana, and quotes from Byron quotes, among others) in order to create a montage in which words lose meanings, deeds go un-done and skits are overblown to the point of parody.
The set is a towering, three-storey cityscape of secret rooms and wrought-metal fire-escapes, including a full replica of a Parisian metro station with an underground platform and train carriage. Much of the action occurs inside, beyond the audience’s gaze, so live camera feeds are projected onto billboards which are revealed as the set turns on the revolve. If reading this is exhausting, just imagine how you’d feel by hour four…
Rather than interrogating the life-and-death morality conundrums at the heart of Goethe’s writing, Castorf uses the familiar characters of Faust, Mephisto and Margarete to examine European abuses of power. Those billboards, when not in use, display stomach-turning adverts for colonial exhibitions in 1806, and much of the play examines French colonial violence and capitalist greed via an uncomfortable focus on Algerian female bodies. Castorf’s depiction of women on stage has long lacked the same nuance and self-awareness that he uses to deconstruct theatrical acts: “It’s a spectacle, but only a spectacle!” a character screams at the two-hour mark. The Volksbühne marketed the show as the pinnacle of twenty five years of innovation, trust and teamwork, and it’s difficult not to feel impressed by such a mountainous work – even if Castorf’s trademark shock-and-awe techniques have become so familiar that one year the Theatertreffen’s blog published a bingo-like list of predictable Castorfisms.
After Faust, another canonical text takes a battering. This time it’s Brecht’s Drums in the Night, by the Munich Kammerspiel. It’s billed as ‘von/nach’ Brecht’ which translates as ‘by/after’: a clear sign that this production is taking Brechtian discourse *extremely* *seriously*. The trap, though, is that to take Brecht seriously is to misunderstand him, and so Christopher Rüping combines the faithful with the ridiculous for a play that’s tight, affectionately irreverent and at times literally blinding – bright, bright white Kubrick-style lights flood the stage for a moment of reckoning. Andreas returns from WW1, painted in plaster like a dusty ghost, to discover that his girlfriend Anna presumed him dead and has found something like love with Mauk, a businessman who shirked and then financially benefited from the war. Her parents urge her to make a financially savvy decision, but a revolution’s raging (off stage) and what follows is a largely practical, occasionally melodramatic, discussion of ethics in a time of love and strife. Actor Damian Rebgetz is a juke-box singer/narrator/director who offers an English summary mid-way through: “Basically, everything’s open.” It’s one of Brecht’s earliest works, and the set borrows the cartoonish, towering 2D buildings and eye of Sauron-like red moon from the original staging – which took place in the Munich Kammerspiel in year 1922. The phrase “Glotzt nicht so romantisch” (translation: “don’t gape so romantically”) is plastered around the venue as if a political slogan, warning against rose-tinted, uncritical spectatorship. The nub, though, is that to see the play’s alternate ending, you’d need to go twice: an overly romantic expectation for an audience, perhaps? Still, Brecht’s warning for his spectators feels fitting for Faust, too: do we lose critical distance when we mythologise figures like Castorf?
Empty Leftist Politics: Return to Reims and On the Royal Road
Stylistically-speaking, these two productions couldn’t be more different, but both sought to expose leftist over-intellectualisations of the far right with varying degrees of success. Fresh from acclaim in London and New York, Return to Reims is a co-production between HOME Manchester, Theatre de la Ville Paris and Berlin’s Schaubühne, directed by the critically lauded Thomas Ostermeier. The play is based on Didier Eribon’s book of the same name, in which the French sociologist returns to his working-class home town after the death of his father. As a gay teen he was desperate to leave, and soon found solace and adventure in Paris, but now Eribon feels guiltily disconnected as he attempts to understand how local, unionised support for the Left has turned into votes for the Front National.
Set in an elegant, wood-panelled recording studio, Nina Hoss (playing an actor) is narrating a documentary on Eribon, directed by Paul, a performatively ‘woke’ art bro who interrupts Hoss’ valid concerns with his editing of the text and exploits the good will of studio manager Tony, a single parent and aspiring musician. A pointed joke about mansplaining is a little cheap, but makes clear that Paul is less a fleshed out character, and rather a straw man for the left’s contemporary disconnect, in theory and in practice. Several attempts are made to ensure meta-theatricality: Paul reminds Hoss that this “isn’t theatre”, that she’s free to make mistakes, and authoritative father-figures haunt the documentary and the play. The first half is meditative; Hoss reads aloud, the beautifully shot documentary plays out over head, complete with toe-curling footage of Gordon Brown and the ‘bigoted’ woman. Later, she slips almost imperceptibly from character to tell the story of her own father, a founding member of the German Green Party, who fought to ‘save’ indigenous communities in the Amazon. She shows family photos from holidays to the rainforest, and videos of her father teaching local people to use a new water supply – but after such a powerful, critical consideration of European politics’ estrangement from the public, it feels a deflection to end on an image of white saviourhood, no matter how well intentioned.
In contrast, On the Royal Road, written by Elfriede Jelinek, is unabashed maximalism. The play space is huge, like a gallery constructed from white flat-pack furniture: doors, balconies and a separate, one-room house fold out from the walls. The main metaphor: blindness. Who sees, who is seen, how does this intersect with power, and what does this mean for the future of a nation? Director Falk Richer fills this void with pop cultural clutter, creating migraine-inducing chaos. The muppets clutch inflatable machine guns and drag huge, tacky animal sculptures – hawks, tigers, gorillas – across the stage. We meet a baby-faced king, petulant, unpredictable and prone to tantrums. This king is never named, but as he flounces in an ermine cape, bouncing an inflatable globe and ranting about the popular vote, a possible lack of personal wealth and the real-estate value of golf courses, there’s little doubt or subtlety in this Trump caricature. Digital chaos flickers against the back wall: screen grabs, news reporters, snippets of text and videos of violence. Comedian Idil Baydar, well-known for her YouTube persona Jilet Ayse, rips in to the audience, questioning what it means to be a majority, or a populace, poking fun at the Theatertreffen’s middle-class demographic. But, a few well-placed jokes about Trump’s Deutsche Bank debt aside, it feels like familiar territory. How dangerous is it to make fun of digital disconnect and careless Trumpian violence, when his actions have real, devastating human cost? I suppose this is a question you could ask of any theatre, at any time – Return to Reims and On the Royal Road try to stop their audiences from feeling self-congratulatory, but do they succeed?
Speaking/Not Speaking: Die Odyssee and Fresque
Two blonde, handsome brothers sit either side of their father’s coffin, bickering and teasing. Above the coffin: a photo of Hollywood star Kirk Douglas, who took on Homer’s epic in 1954. With crumbs of Swedish, English and German, the brothers (played by Thomas Niehaus and Paul Schröder) speak a sing-song nonsense language that’s wholly compelling, and they re-tell Odysseus’ story through magic tricks, slapstick, song and a whole lot of well-oiled wrestling. The Thalia Theatre’s Odyssee, directed by Antú Romero Nunes, is physical, tightly choreographed clowning and a simple side-eye from Niehaus is enough to set the audience roaring. A cabaret of lightness and dark, on a stage built from David Lynch’s tiles, the play rolls through Homerian hits – sea monsters, a cyclops, storied seer Tiresias – with total delight. The changes in tone are fluid, flickering from mournful in moonlight to Chucklebrothers’-level incompetence, via grotesque physical transformations, and the props are simple and precise: a single white balloon, bubble wrap, a Greek jug. The coffin becomes a boat, a guitar, an operating table, a banquet, before the brothers take chainsaws to fatherly and authorial legacies.
Fresque takes a similarly playful approach to props. Switzerland’s Old Masters construct a deceptively simple stage: a draped grey backdrop, a ring of floodlights, a wooden structure formed of boxes, sort of. It’s a monstrous kind of cabinet, as if you bought a clearance sale of Ikea units and drilled them together at random. At its centre, a layered, hacked-at mound of foam. Two actors (Charlotte Herzig and Marius Schaffter) are dressed in neutrals, with matching plastic wigs. As they interact with the structure it becomes a house, the left wing a bedroom, the right a kitchen, sometimes these are reversed, but their dialogue says little at all. Speech becomes inaction: ‘Let’s go’, says Charlotte, and they do not. A letter is discussed; the content is a secret, and the emotional aftermath supposedly destructive, although both actors remain fixedly impassive. Their backstory is repeatedly erased and remade, and the final crescendo is non-verbal: the jazzy soundtrack of bird-song and underlying, threatening bass swells as if to deafen. The rings of light flutter and quake, rippling across the structure as if it were spinning – it’s surreal and weirdly imposing, a lesson in wordless manipulation that throws circular shadows on what is meant but not said. Of course there’s tons of dry ice. Comedy is found in the gap between meanings, and drama is created from light and sound and wooden planks. Like Die Oydssee, it feels a celebration of story-telling, and of the power to transport an audience with little other than imagination.
From a British perspective, the Theatertreffen feels a curious mix of excess and celebration. The proportions of works like Faust feel audacious, but why shouldn’t art be expensive? The repeated revisiting of canonical works by directors who are fast becoming canon themselves creates a strange cycle of destruction, and a fight for authorial dominance – a topic revisited by several productions this year. Many of these productions are laced with in-jokes – during an ad-lib in On the King’s Road, the Trump-baby “fires” Chris Dercon – and this makes for a strange feeling of belonging to a privileged set, even in plays which are openly attempting to criticise the lack of diversity in their own demographics: who, then, is this publically funded festival for? Still, at the Friday evening, free open-air screening of Die Odyssee, curious families stopped to watch, ice-creams in hand. Children and teens and retirees alike took pleasure in the silliness and magic of retelling an old, old story.