Picasso once said that creation must begin with destruction. I don’t know whether this is the correct phrasing, or if Picasso ever even really said this, but something resembling these words came to mind upon watching Christopher Rüping’s brutally inventive dissection of Bertolt Brecht’s Trommeln in der Nacht.
In Trommeln in der Nacht, destruction is political. Through a reversal of Picasso’s maxim, Rüping builds Brecht up in order to tear him down. The performance begins with a meticulous reconstruction of the Münchner Kammerspiele’s historical 1922 production and ends with the set being dismantled, crushed and incinerated before our very eyes. By building in order to demolish, Rüping manages to construct something new and otherworldly from the text’s scattered fragments, recalling Dead Centre’s Chekhov’s First Play. The production walks a meta-theatrical line between reconstruction and reinvention.
Trommeln in der Nacht was Bertolt Brecht’s second play and his first to be produced in Germany. It tells the story of Andreas Kragler (Christian Löber), a POW who returns home from war to discover his country is in the grip of a Spartacist revolt and his girlfriend, Anna (Wiebke Mollenhauer), is engaged to marry a war-materials manufacturer. It was also a failure. Not only did Brecht come to regret his choice of ending, in which Andreas turns his back on revolutionary action to rekindle his love for Anna, but the production’s expressionist performance style had already begun to wear thin when it finally reached the stage in 1922.
While a straightforward adaptation might choose to elide or gloss over these issues, Rüping tackles them head-on. This production isn’t so much an adaptation of Brecht’s play as a violent reckoning with it. In his decision to grapple with the play’s flaws and imperfections, Rüping breaks the text apart and reveals its messy inner workings. Like a crowd of spectators watching a physician performing open-heart-surgery, we stare with a mixture of shock and awe as Rüping sticks his hands into the arteries of Brecht’s play and rummages around in the entrails.
As we enter the auditorium, we watch the actors and technicians assembling wooden flats on-stage, arranging bits of furniture and lowering in a red cardboard sun. The piecemeal set of the original 1922 production is recreated before our very eyes. What takes shape is a living, breathing facsimile. Against this imitation backdrop, the cast attempt to mimic the postures, poses and speech-rhythms of that debut production. Each line and physical gesture is delivered with such portentous weight that it becomes ridiculous. The effect is laughable, awkward and unsettling, and it doesn’t take long before this farcical attempt at historical re-enactment begins to collapse in on itself.
As the reconstruction falters, things begins to spin out of control: Amalie, Anna’s mother, gets hideously drunk and staggers off-stage in a stupor, karaoke machines are wheeled on, bursts of pop-song disrupt the action, and at one point Damian Rebgetz halts the performance to argue with an unseen trespasser who has stumbled into the theatre.
The overall effect is a giddy, shambolic and arresting assault, not only on Brecht, but also on a set of historical conditions. As we watch this painstaking re-enactment spiral into disarray, Rüping’s production becomes untethered from the text and gives way to something altogether more anarchic and volatile. Try to imagine what a Minor Threat cover-version of The Bee Gee’s ‘How Deep Is Your Love ‘would sound like, and you’ll have some idea of the exhilarating, frenzied and disordered joy of it all.
Then Rüping flips the entire thing on its head. Just when you think you’ve managed to get a handle on it, the stage is swept clean of its historical baggage and we’re plunged into a futurist looking world of dazzling neon lights and billowing smoke. Microphones are brought on, the actors appear in white overalls, and the performers address the audience in a kind of euphoric, musical incantation. By the end, everything lies in pieces. While Dead Centre sent a wrecking-ball crashing into a Chekhovian country mansion, Rüping has his cast and crew incinerate Brecht, with a wood-chipper brought on-stage to chew-up and spit-out the flimsy flats in a stream of splintered fragments.
But if the idea of destruction as a form of creation is central to this staging, then so to is the desire to rebuild from the rubble. Taking Brecht’s dissatisfaction with the play’s ending as his inspiration, Rüping presents us with two possible conclusions to Andreas and Anna’s situation – one that is in-keeping with Brecht, and one in which Andreas abandons Anna to embrace the revolutionary moment. Brecht came to denounce his choice of ending for Trommeln in der Nacht. He thought it was maudlin and sentimental. By the standards of his later work, it also serves as a minor betrayal of his political commitment to social change, with private passion taking trumping political commitment. On the evening I watched it, the cast performed Brecht’s ending, in which Andreas chooses to abandon the uprisings and go to bed with Anna. It’s a conclusion fraught with difficulties and complications, a fact made abundantly clear in the cast’s violent and bloody deconstruction of its messy implications.
Christopher Rüping’s Trommeln in der Nacht is theatre as controlled demolition. With so much theatre agitating for revolutionary change but seldom embracing it in terms of form, Rüping’s production dares to mangle Brecht in the desperate and violent pursuit of new forms and new frontiers. The result isn’t wanton vandalism, but thrilling reinvention, through a smart and savage deconstruction of one of Brecht’s most problematic plays.
Trommeln in der Nacht was at the Deutsches Theater until May 11th, and is currently playing in rep at the Münchner Kammerspiele. For more details, click here.