Features FestivalsGermanyInternationalReviews Published 1 June 2017

Theatertreffen: A dialogue

Lee Anderson and Annegret Märten discover metatheatrics, total theatre and a fug of Ostalgie at Berlin's fortnight-long festival of German theatre.
Lee Anderson
Five Easy Pieces at Theatertreffen 2017

Five Easy Pieces at Theatertreffen 2017

Lee Anderson: Despite the fact I was in Berlin for only five of the ten shortlisted productions at this year’s Theatertreffen, a definite theme soon began to emerge. Whereas the productions selected for 2016’s festival attempted in their own various ways to grapple with the topics of integration and democracy in Europe – from the refugee crisis to the spread of right-wing populism – 2017 has been a year in which subjectivity, reality and simultaneity are front and centre. These productions seemed to express an anxiety about the role that media, reconstructions and projection play in today’s representation and self-representation processes.

Annegret Märten: Perhaps we can talk about a few concrete examples of how this manifested on the stages at Theatertreffen? I thought an especially successful meta-theatrical reflection of representation practices could be found in Milo Rau’s Five Easy Pieces (Institute for Political Murder/Campo Gent) about (but also not just about) the Belgian child murderer Marc Dutroux. In the discussions before and after the invited shows much was also made of the specific aesthetic forms that communicate today’s concurrency of events and the part media plays in unsettling people. I loved how Claudia Bauer’s show 89/90 used choral arrangements and repetitions to square up moments of political resistance and quite personal confusion. Some productions expanded the immediacy of the theatrical setting into the digital realm, offering on-site virtual-reality experiences. In addition to the already ubiquitous live camera work and on-stage projections, several of the main shows used techniques of sampling and looping. The loop, as a symbolic form, seems to grasp the ways in which we no longer live political participation through the digital revolution. Instead, we inhabit the ever-turning hamster wheel of our own echo chambers. Die Borderline Prozession was a stunning example of that.

Lee: I found Die Borderline Prozession to be a totally overwhelming experience from start to finish. Despite a three hour running time, two intervals and an audience able to switch from one side of the stage to the other throughout the evening, it completely threw me for a loop. It’s pure sound and fury from start to finish; a swirling cacophony of surreal and apocalyptic imagery, text and sound. The Theatertreffen program describes the production as ‘total theatre’ and I can’t really think of a more fitting description for this impenetrable monolith of a production. It’s a thrilling and de-stabilising experience.

Die Borderline Prozession bombards us with frames-within-frames and worlds-within-worlds. As we enter the auditorium – a warehouse on the edges of Berlin with an installation and full lighting rig plonked in the middle of it – we have a choice of two perspectives by choosing to sit on either side of a thrust stage space. On one side, we’re presented with various domestic rooms, such as a lounge, kitchen, bedroom and ensuite bathroom, all decked out in bland, middle-class chic decor. On the opposite side, there is a street, complete with bus stop, strip-club, kiosk and jaguar (yes, a real jaguar).

The installation-style set made me think of Pandora’s Box. A container for encasing all the evils of the world, in which only ‘hope’ remains. As the performance unfurls, these ‘evils’ grow and multiply, beginning with the ‘everydayness’ of the first act, in which domestic rituals sit alongside scenes of drug-abuse and prostitution, before mutating into the warfare and terror of the second act, and then the surrealism and dreamlike world of the final act.

What’s more, there is the added layer of the screens that hang above us, projecting whatever is taking place on the opposite side of the stage. So, wherever you sit in the space, you’re bombarded from all angles by everything that is happening all at once. A camera dolly orbits the stage, coming full circle and capturing the action in its totality. We don’t always know where or when to look. Our eyes dart from screen, to stage, to camera, and back again. The performance presents the audience with a kind of violent subjectivity in which politics and art collide in an endless repeating cycle.

Borderline Procession at Theatertreffen 2017

Borderline Procession at Theatertreffen 2017

Annegret: Overwhelming is certainly what I would call it as well and I really like the Pandora’s Box analogy you make. For the first part of it I watched a section of the set with a bus shelter and an S&M studio window. Next to it, a “child” in a creepy mask kept coming out of a guarded door; the guard gave the child some sweets, a stern man came onto the scene, a creepy tourist bothered the people in the street, the child went back inside – all this repeated 20, 30 times, no dialogue. Instead, voice-overs from somewhere on the other side (the poet perhaps who kept visiting the sex dungeon) talking in quotes about philosophy, image theory and cultural history.

Extracts from the Bible, Ginsberg, Nietzsche, right wing propaganda, Brecht – I was reminded of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, an unwieldy and unfinished book project consisting largely of quotes that experiments with putting overlapping meanings next to one another. Instead of ‘explaining’ modernity, it looks at scraps of culture and through combining them it gestures at new contexts and aesthetics that arise from them. I thought Borderline was trying for something similar. But I couldn’t help being left unsatisfied and frustrated by the outright refusal to commit to narrative – I’m sure that was completely intended though.

This dramaturgical open heart surgery – laying open all its influences without putting the ‘patient’ back together to offer an ethical positioning – certainly worked as an aesthetic reflection on simultaneity. But it also produced some seriously troubling moments. For example, when one character in the S&M room begged for forgiveness for the world’s war crimes for about 20 minutes while a woman was raped in that Jaguar you mentioned – but what does this do really other than saying that world is messy? Did it offer you an insight in how to navigate that messiness?

Lee: It’s undoubtedly problematic. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it offered me an ‘insight’ in any strictly dialectical sense. It’s certainly a lot less illuminating of the political situation than, say, 89/90. It’s tricky. As an aesthetic experience and technical achievement, it was a thrilling experience that spewed a whole plethora of arresting images and powerful set-pieces. It struck me as distinctly Artaudian in its approach; a highly symbolic and imagistic response to the sound and fury of the twenty-first century. But the spectacle of violence was deeply troubling. You’ve got me there.

Annegret: Five Easy Pieces was the show that I went in most worried, and came out with a strange mix of elation and sadness. The reason of my worry was that Milo Rau, the director, decided work with child actors to explore the aftermath of the Belgian child killer Marc Dutroux who in the 1990s kidnapped and killed several young girls. Afterwards, I felt elated because I’d just seen an incredibly nuanced, funny and entertaining unpicking of theatrical representation processes, and sad because the material was dealt with in an emotionally intelligent and impactful way. It should be a strange to talk about elation in regards to a piece about Dutroux. On paper this reads like an incredibly attention-seeking and sensationalist approach to making theatrical work. Indeed, the show has raised a lot of criticism. I found that far from an ethically dubious piece, Five Easy Pieces feels like a playful, thoughtful and definitely critical reflection on the kind of documentary work or ‘research theatre’ that groups like Rimini Protokoll and Rau’s own company International Institute for Political Murder have been cultivating over the past 15 years.

Lee: I shared your reservations about Five Easy Pieces. I felt apprehensive moments before taking my seat in the Sophiensæle. A cursory read of the program notes is enough to put you on edge. A dramatic ‘reconstruction’ of the events surrounding the child murders of Marc Dutroux performed by children. I mean, even before you’ve seen the piece, it throws up a multitude of ethical questions. What the performance becomes over the course of its modest eighty-minutes in length (a rarity for German theatre, in my experience) is a hugely compassionate, tender and even – dare I say it? – comic performance that toys with different levels of reality. It’s a profoundly political piece – one that begins by connecting the legacy of Belgium’s colonial subjugation of the Congo with the blind-eyes turned to Dutroux’s horrific crimes. What we have, essentially, is an ensemble of child performers who begin to simulate the actions of professional actors that are being played out on a video screen above the stage. These pre-recorded segments dictate the actions of the children, but it soon becomes apparent that the children themselves are the ones calling the shots here. They’re in control. They toy with us, demanding to do things their own way and highly articulate on the underlying injustices belying Dutroux’s crimes.

Annegret: The setting is that of 7 children in a rehearsal room learning about what it means to embody, research and represent real events on stage. Interestingly, there was a real sense of a torn Belgian national identity coming through the playful scenes with the children that touched upon very complex issues around the role of the media and even colonial contexts. Strangely, the presence of the children meant that the hopeful notion was raised that there is a way of activating this fraught collective cultural memory in a productive way. There were however, some very uncomfortable moments in which questions of power (of the director, of the camera) were probed. What came out most clearly for me is that each set of real events demands that the tools of documentary theatre be newly tuned.

Lee: Speaking of uncomfortable moments, there was one in particular where the ethical complexity of the piece was thrown into sharp focus. These are the moments in which Milo Rau interrogates the blurred line between collaboration and coercion. The moment in question is when one of the child actors is asked to take on the role of one of Dutroux’s victims. She sits on a mattress with a camera projecting her image onto a screen. The ‘director’ asks her to recite the text of a letter written by one of Dutroux’s victims to her parents during her imprisonment. It’s chilling and distressing, and hugely problematic, and though I’m aware of Rau’s ‘self-conscious’ approach to these moments, it didn’t make watching it any easier. It was made all the more difficult when the ‘director’ asks the young girl to take off her top and tells her to ‘do it like we practiced in rehearsal’. Rau seems to be challenging the foundations of his own approach in these moments, raising interesting questions about agency, artistic licence and verisimilitude through reconstruction. What’s astonishing though is that even in these calculatedly troubling moments, Rau is painstakingly careful to maintain the dignity of these young performers. He treads an incredibly fine line and the performance is all the more compelling for it.

Annegret: A few days ago, my thoughts started returning to the show again and especially to the ways it challenged representational modes. After the atrocious Manchester attack several so-called news outlets decided to exploit the fact that young children were killed to drive up their sales figures. Not only do we have a responsibility for the realities we produce as artists and journalists and other professional contexts, we also have a responsibility in the way we consume these representations. Deconstruction of language, images and representations is not a flight of philosophical fancy.

The other piece I wanted to bring up was 89/90. It is a coming-of-age story set in times of immense turmoil. A boy grows up when the socialist state of the GDR collapses around him. The levity of summer love and balmy nights at the local swimming pool turn into distorted nightmare images – complete with creepy baby costumes and synchronised ideology dancing. Claudia Bauer’s show is an adaptation of a novel by Peter Richter and has come fresh out of Leipzig. Because of its newly-flourishing alternative art scene and the affordable living standard, people keep calling Leipzig ‘the new Berlin’.

The story could be set in any larger town during the “Wende”-time that had a critical mass of pubescent teenagers. But it is, in fact, set in Dresden and this Dresden-Leipzig axis is perhaps not coincidental. Dresden is the town in which in 2017(!) a politician from the far-right AfD could hold a populist speech that asked the assembled young people to turn away from what he deems Germany’s ‘memory culture of shame’. Instead, he called for a cultural German national identity that emphasises the ‘positive’ aspects. Dresden and Leipzig are also the sites at which another xenophobic group, the “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West” (PEDGIDA) has been activating the memory of the peaceful Monday demonstrations, which took place in 1989 in the two cities, to stir up hate especially against citizens of Muslims faith. Between these poles, Leipzig and Dresden in the German state of Saxony the whole spectrum of the East-German national trauma is played out.

Also, in Germany ‘Ostalgie’ is a word that is used to describe the feeling of yearning melancholia for all the good things that have been lost with the breakdown of the GDR in, it’s literally East-nostalgia. This phenomenon is not one of these elusive, not otherwise palpable strange German concepts, like Waldeinsamkeit or Schadenfreude. It is, in fact, a concept that fires a booming industry. Invigorating local tourism and small industry was a welcome effect of the Ostalgie effect but it also threw up some pretty bizarre phenomenons such as shops that are themed exclusively around the East-German traffic light man who, with his hat and squat stature, looks so ‘quaint’ and ‘different’ from its slender West German counterpart – it’s cute and something to which one can attach an ideal of fond memories. But these merely mask the deep sense of fracture that was experienced by most people who have gone through the time. Claudia Bauer, director of 89/90, was very careful to avoid the Ostalgie that was particularly popularised by film such as Sonnenallee and Goodbye, Lenin! at the turn of the millennium.

Lee: It’s interesting what you say about ‘Ostalgie’ and the yearning for the certainties of life under the GDR. Today, nostalgia as a reaction against the present and an attempt to reconstruct an imagined version of the past, has never felt more alive in the UK and Europe as a whole. In terms of 89/90 though, it appeared to me that Bauer was treading a distinctly ambivalent line on her approach to life under the German Democratic Republic. The memories we saw embodied on-stage were very slippery, at times verging on nightmarish. As a non-German speaking Brit watching the production while surrounded by audience members with an evident stake in that period of history, I found myself in a fascinating – yet odd – position. I was born in 1988, one year before the collapse of the Berlin wall and the unification of East and West Germany. As I was growing up, everything I know about that period was fed to me through a school-syllabus or gleaned from television documentaries. I think there’s a tendency for a lot of people like me to overlook the messy, chaotic and tumultuous period that followed that historical moment following the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
One of the things I found most fascinating about 89/90 was the way in which Bauer dismantles the idea of ‘reunification’ and reveals it to be a messy, fraught and violent attempt to impose a political and ideological narrative. Again, despite their wildly different contexts, I found it impossible not to watch Bauer’s production through the prism of Brexit and our own government’s attempt to impose its own narrative under the banner of ‘national unity’ and ‘coming together’. Amid endless appeals to ‘the will of the people’, I found it impossible to divorce Helmut Kohls’ from our own Prime Minister’s attempt to enforce a partisan vision of the country by dressing it up as a plea for unity.

In another sense, Bauer’s production brilliantly conveys the total sense of the anguish, confusion and disarray that many who lived under the GDR experienced when that system collapsed – from the eruptions of street violence between Commies and Nazis, to the unfettered spread of consumer capitalism and its psychological effect on those who had lived in the former socialist bloc.

Annegret: In the show, a man is remembering his youth, his friends and the harrowing events in the year the wall came down. Despite resulting in some quite farcical moments, the story is a real punch in the gut. And these strange characters and events rang true with my own childhood experiences. For me, born in 1985, growing up in the a small town in East Germany, watching piece has certainly been an education. Large parts of the story are set in the school of the protagonist, and the school teachers end up being viewed through this distorted lens of childhood memory. Memory here for me as a viewer was a deeply melancholic affair as if through the man’s confusion I could see the dark clouds from today’s right-wing radicalism slowly but violently billow into view. When I was young, I simply could not understand the neo-Nazi phenomenon that crept all around me. History classes dwelled on the Germany’s war crimes but it did not provide a space to consider the massive ideological vacuum that young people in the immediate aftermath of the reunification had to fill somehow.

Lee: That ‘massive ideological vacuum’ was beautifully articulated by Bauer through the presence of the on-stage choir. For me, the musical ensemble stood in for a kind of collective consciousness; one that shifted from bellowing out songs by and for the party-faithful, to a collective mouthpiece that signalled the breakdown that was soon to follow in the form of East German punk anthems. In the first act, the strict discipline of the choir continuously erupted into displays of squabbling, disorder and moments of physical violence between the performers, which seemed to precipitate the collapse of ‘really existing socialism’ that we witness take place at the end of the first act. What I found interesting was the way in which the choir’s presence in the second act mirrored and responded to this. Despite the break with a kind of uniform-socialism at the end of the first Act – with the revolving stage turning to reveal an enormous video-screen beaming out western advertising slogans – that self-same uniformity is reproduced in the second act. The chorus return. Only this time, they’re chanting pro-western and pro-market mantras instead. I wonder whether the looping of these two acts and its formal repetition suggests a weird kind of continuity between the prescribed social order under the GDR and the enforced compliance with free-market capitalism that followed the regime’s collapse in the second act.

Annegret: That’s a great spot with the repetition of another kind of performed unity. Looping was certainly this year’s go-to-aesthetic. I thought that 89/90’s repetitive choric presence was less formally radical than, say, Forced Entertainment’s Real Magic or Kay Voges’ Die Borderline Prozession – with these it was quite specifically about patterns of perception and how we repetition as a theatrical form can help us question the established ways we make sense of the world. But with 89/90 the repetition pitched the mannered form of traditional seeming choral arrangements against punk song lyrics, and the simultaneous moment of resistance and confusion broke forth from that moment of friction.

Theatertreffen presents the ‘ten most notable productions’ from theatres across Germany in a two week-long festival. This year, it ran from 4th-20th May 2017. For more information, visit the Theatertreffen website.


Lee Anderson

Lee is a writer and critic living in London. Despite subsisting solely on a diet of Marmite sandwhiches, black coffee and Marlboro Light, Lee survived the crush of academia and graduated with a first-class degree in English & Film and Theatre from the University of Reading in 2011 (a decision he has struggled to explain to his parents ever since). As well as slating work as a critic, Lee is also making work as a playwright, thus both having his cake and eating it too. He is also an Associate Artist of SQUINT theatre company.