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Berlin’s Holy of Holies

By Daniel Mufson
Originally published in PAJ, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Jan. 2007), pp. 53-64.

Berlin’s Theatertreffen is a strange beast. One speaks of it as a festival, and yet, in contrast to BAM’s Next Wave or the Festival d’automne or countless other international festivals saturating the theater calendar, the Theatertreffen has the hubris to place a certain qualitative stamp of approval on the ten or so productions invited—all of which must come from the German-speaking world. The festival is careful not to say these are the best productions of the prior year, but rather the “bemerkenswertesten”—the most noteworthy, and occasionally one encounters someone willing to expound on why this semantic difference actually matters. It doesn’t. And because it doesn’t, critics launch an ever-recurring line of attack—asking if one or more of the invited productions is truly more “notable” than some other production they feel was neglected. Most international festivals don’t have this burden—an article asking why Brussels’ KustenFestival des Arts invited, say, TG Stan instead of the Wooster Group one year would come off as pointless, because one assumes from the get-go that the repertoire of invited productions has an almost arbitrary quality about it.

Other perennial discussions about the Theatertreffen concern certain types of diversity—are there enough productions from theaters outside the major cities, are the same old directors being invited every year? Then, alas, there’s the inevitable question of what this year’s festival says about German-speaking society. 2006 was no exception. A salient feature of this year’s Theatertreffen was how lamentably familiar the contours of its debates seemed to American observers: The festival was framed by discussions in the press and in the its own forums regarding so-called shock theater, directorial disrespect for texts, and the obligation of the taxpayer to subsidize questionable theater made by artists who often seem to harbor nothing but contempt for most taxpayers. There was even a question at one of the festival press conferences that referred to the shrinking budgets and space allotted to German theater criticism, a phenomenon so old in the United States that people hardly comment on it anymore.

Two months before the festival began, Der Spiegel published an article by Joachim Lottmann, a writer described as an “occasional theatergoer,” which precipitated the so-called “Ekel-Debatte,” or “Disgust Debate.” It featured the usual litany against anecdotal instances of pointless nudity, smattered blood, and vomit, and it struck a predictable chord with many readers who’ve tired of going to see such theater—of which, it must be said, Germany is not in short supply. The debate was conducted on primitive, superficial terms, which neglected two important points—as this debate, wherever it takes place, almost always does. First, many of the directors targeted for using shock tactics don’t regard their productions as shocking, and second, the truly offensive aspect of much co-called Regietheater is that it consists of overblown stylistic habits utterly devoid of the creativity their auteurs think they possess. Some of these stylistic habits perhaps coincidentally involve nudity, smattered blood, and so forth, but many don’t. Just as often, they involve video screens or classic rock pumped out of loudspeakers or actors who suddenly start screaming their lines for no apparent reason and to no constructive effect. Whatever their form, such habits are tedious, not shocking.

In conjunction with the misguided debate that preceded the Theatertreffen, festival Intendant Joachim Sartorius and Theatertreffen head Iris Laufenberg mentioned in the festival program’s introductory essay that they had organized three discussion sessions to debate “to what extent theater is bound to contemporary reality or to “the Good, the True, the Beautiful.” The Theatertreffen 2006 chose as its theme, “The Council: … or the Battle for the Holy of Holies,” evoking ecclesiastical frays. Sartorius and Laufenberg’s essay tried to inject some irony into their use of these loaded terms, but instead of sounding sophisticated, they appeared as if they were opportunistically trying to use the preceding year’s controversies to stoke interest in the festival.

The festival itself consisted of three Chekhov plays, a Macbeth, a Hedda Gabler, a piece of dance theater by William Forsythe, two documentary theater productions, and two light-weight contemporary plays, one of which was adapted from a novel by Amos Oz. An eleventh play by Christoph Marthaler had also been selected for the festival, but because of scheduling problems, it will be presented as part of the 2006-2007 full-year festival in Berlin, spielzeiteuropa. In another desperate attempt at showing the social relevance of the festival, the predominance of Chekhov was supposed to reflect a society suffering from stagnation and an abundance of “superfluous people.”

The Theatertreffen opened with Jürgen Gosch’s Macbeth, a production that had been singled out for rebuke by the Spiegel’s Lottmann. “Ekeltheater from the start,” he wrote, but he failed to think about why. Macbeth is an extraordinarily violent play—that’s its first “problem,” insofar as stage violence today, for a host of obvious reasons, seldom impresses contemporary audiences. The second problem in Macbeth is not new at all, and that is the question of how one represents the otherworldliness of the witches.

Gosch’s solution hearkens back to Shakespeare and can also claim some inspiration from Brook’s The Empty Space (itself influenced by Shakespeare). He dispenses with attempts at illusion and sees the word “play” as the root of “playfulness.” As the audience is seated, it sees a black stage; a large white paper, about three and half meters high and four meters across, hangs on a string and turns in the air. Below it, downstage, tables surrounded by seven or eight reddish-orange chairs have been pushed together, set with bottles filled with water and, ominously, red fluid. A makeshift crown sits at the head of one of the tables. The stage looks like a room arranged for “table work,” one of those early rehearsal sessions that directors typically take to read through and discuss the text with the cast.

Skipping the witches’ first scene, the actors storm the stage and immediately begin to simulate an elemental battle with battle cries and combat, splattering blood from bottles with self-conscious excess. Duncan is stripped naked—except for his silver-rimmed glasses—within the first two minutes; the bleeding sergeant of scene ii enters, also naked, drenched with blood from head to toe. It does not take long to figure out that Gosch’s approach to Macbeth’s violence involves anything but shock; there is more than a little Monty Python, here. Gosch’s all-male cast adopts the Python’s campy drag and, à la the vomit scene in Python’s The Meaning of Life, hopes to create humor by reveling in a deliberately adolescent aesthetic of excessive grossness. The witches in their first scene are naked from the first moment, farting and projectile shitting, occasionally trying to French kiss a less-than-eager Banquo and Macbeth.

This type of staging can fail miserably; its success depends largely on the charm of the cast, the character of the audience, and the director’s instinct to know when to bring the acting back down to earth and let the audience hear the text. According to Lottmann, Gosch’s Macbeth had a large number of walk-outs at the Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus, where it premiered; the Berlin Theatertreffen audience was far more charitable. In a sense, nudity, blood, and scatology are of secondary importance to Gosch’s approach to Macbeth; the real issue on which Gosch’s production stands or collapses is the success with which it uses camp to solve the problems of violence and the portrayal of the witches. Gosch’s actors winked and nodded their way through the play, ingratiating themselves to the spectators and winning a certain degree of sympathy for the disgusting and occasionally dangerous things they had to do.

Gosch’s gags work best when they have a metaphoric value: As Duncan arrives at Macbeth’s castle and praises its “pleasant seat,” he and his party are trying to hop from wet table to wet table, at times doing an all-to-convincing job of looking like they’re about to take a bad fall. Gosch & Co. thereby bring a forgettable scene alive with a physical comedy loaded with dramatic irony, as Duncan tries to convince himself and his party that he walks on terra firma where none exists. Lighter humor emerges in the least suspected place, as Fleance flees the murderers in full stage light, tip-toeing around his fellow actors as they unconvincingly feign blindness.

Gosch’s staging succeeds where many others’ have failed, but he also fails where many have succeeded. Nowhere is this more the case than in David Striesow’s portrayal of Lady Macbeth as a catty vamp prone to psychotic outbursts. In the beginning, Striesow’s Lady is an aggressively, humorously erotic juggernaut that can only crush any trace of hesitation in her husband. The theatrical joie of her portrayal overwhelms any questions one might have about why Macbeth would be so pliable in the face of her horrific demands. Striesow’s portrayal collapses, though, at precisely the moment when other Lady Macbeths shine: The “out damn’d spot” speech remains rich in affect but poor in effect; the histrionics, no longer amusing, lack emotional intensity. Many of the speeches become theatrical black holes because the production proves incapable of making the leap from macabre humor to raw pathos. Elsewhere, the production suffers when it tries to be clever: Gosch stages the murder of Macduff’s family by alluding to Clockwork Orange, but all the audience gets out of it is the knowledge that Gosch has seen Clockwork Orange.

Gosch was the only director this year to have two productions invited to the Theatertreffen, and seeing the two together, one sees that he is a smart, competent, less than extraordinary director who should not be accused of habitually seeking anything sensational. His other Theatertreffen production, Three Sisters, was staged mostly with clothes—but without doors and windows. Moscow? Only if you can break through walls. The set was lit by one footlight which, over the course of the play, moved from the downstage right corner to the one downstage left. The light’s movement, barely perceptible, echoed the phlegmatic pace of the production; the large shadows it cast on the rear and upstage side walls were only intermittently striking, much like the acting. For some reason, all the military men wore business suits instead of uniforms, even when toting guns and duffle bags. Christoph Franken, playing Andrei, looked like Philip Seymour Hoffman on a bad day; while waiting for Natalya’s first entrance, he lifted his shirt, lied down on the dining table, and started slapping his protruding gut to feel the waves of flab as they rippled across his midsection. This Andrei was a pathetic, shaggy mutt, making it more than clear that he was stuck with Natalya because of his awareness that no one else would have him. In spite of the unnecessarily broad gestural vocabulary used by Franken and the rest of the cast, moments of emotional complexity occasionally emerged, not as often as they should have.

The acting style is what I would describe as a typically German brand of exaggerated, slightly alienated psychological realism—i.e., it’s more representational than presentational but it resorts to forced histrionics in ways that seem self-defeating. I suppose one could speak of Vefremdungseffekte here, but Verfremdungseffekte were supposed to inspire a critical distance in the audience—not apathy or boredom. Based on having seen all too many plays performed in this style, I would say there’s a German fear of or disbelief in emotional rawness or sincerity—as if a work that triggered a visceral emotional response in the audience, particularly one of pity or compassion, would necessarily be aesthetically manipulative and therefore false. There is an almost pathological fear in Germany of doing something spießig, or petit-bourgeois, and in theater, the notions of sincerity or emotional vulnerability automatically trigger a fear of catering to petit-bourgeois tastes among some practitioners.

Gosch is far from being the most egregious example of this type of lazy thinking, which I would say epitomizes the work of Frank Castorf and many, if not most, of the directors who make the Berlin Volksbühne their home. Indeed, Dimiter Gotscheff’s horrendous production of Ivanov, which originated at the Volksbühne—and which won the festival’s 3SAT prize for a “zukunftsweisende Leistung” (an achievement that indicates a path for the future)—was far more guilty of this. The jury awarding the prize praised Gotscheff for abstaining from “Birkenwald und Samowar-Geplauder” (birchwood and samovar chit-chat). This false binary between spießig, “faithful” stagings of classics and alienated Regietheater shows just how parochial German directors and theater critics can be, in spite of the abundance of guest productions from strong directorial hands such as Peter Brook, Arpad Schilling, Eimuntas Nekrosius, and countless others. Any production by these directors would classify as Regietheater, hardly spießig, and yet these directors’ works are usually emotionally available and compelling and devoid of the stylistic hiccups that break the emotional intensity of so many German productions.

Perhaps it is no mistake, then, that two of the most memorable works in the Theatertreffen come from sources alien to the German institutional theater and that both are works of documentary theater. Andres Veiel, director and co-creator of the Der Kick, does at least as much if not more work in film as he does in theater, having studied under Krzysztof Kieslowski when he was a student at Künstlerhaus Bethanien. The other documentary work, Wallenstein, comes from Rimini Protokoll, a directors’ collective consisting of one Swiss and two Germans—one of whom lives in Greece. The directors work individually or in different constellations with each other. Considering Der Kick and Wallenstein side-by-side provides a quick study of how diverse the genre of documentary theater can be.

Wallenstein consists of nonprofessional performers playing themselves onstage, delivering autobiographical texts whose themes are loosely inspired by Schiller’s play. Der Kick is the German equivalent of The Laramie Project; two professional actors impersonate figures related to a real criminal case—the murder of a youth by his neo-Nazi acquaintances. The actors perform interview texts that have been ordered and edited for narrative clarity and dramatic impact. Rimini’s Wallenstein consists of several discrete narratives told by people unacquainted with each other prior to the project; Der Kick is a single narrative presented from multiple perspectives. Wallenstein uses photographic projections to enhance its documentary aura; it integrates communication with the audience as well as people outside the theater into the performance; it makes frequent use of stage machinery, like the roundtable stage; props and recorded sounds and music complement the performers’ story-telling. Der Kick opts for narrative austerity: No video, no photos, no music. Wallenstein treats serious themes but makes frequent recourse to moments of levity; Der Kick is relentless in its damning portrait of a small East German town in Brandenburg. What the two have in common, as Theatertreffen juror Barbara Burkhardt told German news agency ddp, is an interest in “victims and perpetrators at the bottom” of society rather than in the great historical figures that populated much of the German documentary theater of the 1960s and 70s.

Der Kick differs from Laramie Project and, say, Anna Deveare Smith’s work in its remorselessness. Where American documentary theater almost always brings in sympathetic characters and integrates comic relief, Der Kick offers, at best, people who earn only halfhearted sympathy owing to their own suffering or naïveté. In July 2002, two brothers, aged 23 and 17, teamed up with another friend to brutally beat another 16-year old to death in Potzlow, a small town in former East Germany about 100 kilometers northeast of Berlin. They harassed their victim, Marinus, into confessing that he was Jewish—which he wasn’t—and used the confession as an occasion to start beating him. The “kick” refers to the means by which a black man was murdered by neo-Nazis in the movie, American History X; the black man was forced to open his jaw and position his head so that a street curb was between his teeth, at which point a murderous kick was delivered to the back of his head. Marinus’s assailants copied the movie. In real life, though, the kick wasn’t enough to murder the victim, and he was bludgeoned further with a stone and then buried. His body was found months later, and gradually it emerged that people in the town were aware of what happened while it was happening and failed to intervene. Andres Veiel, probably best known for directing the movie Black Box BRD, spent months in the town, accompanied by dramaturg Gesine Schmidt, earning the trust of friends and families of victim and assailants—indeed, of two of the assailants themselves.
No pleasant university professors were quoted in Der Kick. There wasn’t a jovial cop who could convincingly insist that this incident didn’t reflect the true nature of the town’s inhabitants. There was just monologue after monologue showing myopia, bitterness, and hate; a milieu of unemployed alcoholics; parents of murderers who insisted that they had raised their children well. Even Marinus turns out to have been a thief, and, after Marinus’s funeral, the Brandenburg regional government informed his family that, since there were fewer of them, they were living in too large a flat to be paid for by welfare. The grim existence of Potzlow’s inhabitants spanned generations: The brothers’ great-grandparents had been killed by the Russian army, family land was confiscated under postwar agricultural policy, and the region languished after the Wall fell. The austere vision of humanity was echoed in the site chosen for the performance, an abandoned, decrepit industrial building in East Berlin. The stage was bare but for a bench and, upstage left, a windowed cubicle which one of the performers would enter for courtroom speeches. No music, only spare shifts in the lighting. An incredibly powerful indictment of a community and a frightening look at social atrophy.
Wallenstein packed less of a wallop, but theatrically it was more unusual, and the Rimini Protokoll collective seems destined to become an important constellation in Europe’s theatrical firmament. Rimini, consisting of Helgard Haug, Daniel Wetzel, and Stefan Kaegi, creates documentary theater in which people without performance backgrounds represent themselves in productions, often in a site-specific context. In Cargo Sofia-X, the audience enters a truck with a glass wall and gets driven around a city’s warehouses, depots, and truck stops while two truck drivers describe what it’s like to transport goods this way for a living. In Call Cutta, each Berlin audience member receives a phone call from a call-center employee in Calcutta who in turn directs the Berliner on a tour through the city—punctuated by questions like, “Have you ever used a false name on the phone?” Wallenstein, directed by Haug and Wetzel, represents a break of sorts for the group, as it’s the first time they ever used a play text as a launching point for their work. They held auditions for people who had stories that resonated with those of the characters in Schiller’s play. Rimini found a Wallenstein-like figure in Sven-Joachim Otto, a judge who sits on a welfare tribunal and ran as a candidate for mayor of Mannheim on behalf of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU). With disarming honesty, Otto discusses his campaign tricks and the intra-party betrayal, the fate of a contemporary Wallenstein, that led to his downfall. Otto is so open, in fact, that some critics and audience members have wondered what his agenda was when he agreed to tell his story for Rimini Protokoll. Is he looking for pity? Political rejuvenation? Or just an exorcism of his demons?

Echoing themes of military obedience and betrayal are several veterans, German and American, who talk about their military service—in World War II, or in Vietnam, or in the former Yugoslavia. One American, Dave Blalock, explains how an abusive officer in Vietnam was killed by his subordinates in a murder case that was never solved. Another American, Darnell Summers, also describes his disillusionment during Vietnam and tells the audience of his activities on behalf of Iraq War deserters. Schiller’s star-gazing Seni becomes a Mannheim astrologist named Esther Potter who offers zodiacal explanations for Otto’s fate. In Wallenstein, Rimini fills the stage with disparate, eccentric characters, transforms them into an ensemble, and finds thematic connections that surprise and amuse and provoke. There is a didactic aspect to the deliberateness with which themes are evident in a given work, but the narrowness and tendentiousness connoted by the word “didactic” are absent. Not only are answers not proffered, but viewers could spend evenings debating the nature of the questions themselves. Perhaps most remarkably, there’s no sense that their “protagonists,” as Helgard Haug calls the performers, are hamming it up or altering their stories for the stage. There’s a clumsiness, a reluctance, a frankness that permeates the performances; we’re always beholding humans, rather than people representing humans.

In Three Atmospheric Studies, choreographer William Forsythe doesn’t attempt a documentary dance theater—if there can be such a thing!—but he creates his most politically engaged work to date. In Part One, dancers stop and start jerkily, as if playing a game of freeze tag, although the stops and starts are not always triggered by the touch of another dancer; sometimes all of them freeze for a tableau together. “My son was arrested”: The only text we hear in this section. Performed without music, the poses and gestures evoke conflict, parried blows, defensive crouches, twisted arms, arrests by police, the pleas of a suppliant. In Part II, the soundscape is dissonant, musically and verbally; we begin to hear a dialogue in which a woman reports the arrest of her son while he was trying to protect his sister and her friends; they “were playing outside when a rocket hit.” On top of this dialogue between the mother and a man transcribing and translating her testimony, a dancer in between them begins to describe, physically and verbally, an image, perhaps a Cranach crucifixion, mentioned in the program and reproduced in the theater foyer. Strings cut through the stage at various angles, evoking the lines that formalist art critics use to demonstrate the balance and focus of a composition. At times, the mother’s description of the scene she witnessed intersects with the scene limned by the dancer. The Cranach scene shifts to a moment of modern warfare in the Middle East. Another picture hangs in the theater foyer, a photo of a car bombing in Iraq, and Forsythe is exploring the compositional similarities between Cranach’s painting and the war photo. The intersection of dialogue and images seems to draw a connection between the arrest of the (presumably) Iraqi mother’s son and Christ, but the connection dissolves as the mother loses her own sense of the narrative and becomes unsure of who she is and what she experienced. The narrative is further compromised when the transcriber-translator continually distorts her sentences.

After a brief intermission, the audience returns for Part III, the weakest part of the performance. Combat sounds blare; actors make percussive machine gun sounds in the microphones. A dancer evoking a museum guard addresses the seated woman who played the mother in Part Two: “Nature builds stuff up and destroys it; we just accelerate the process,” she says. A representative of the Pentagon comes out—with the requisite southern accent, of course—and churns out clichés: “Every action taken was an appropriate one,” and later, “Your point of view, ma’am, is not interesting to me.” Meanwhile, the dancer who explicated the image of Part Two walks around and identifies imaginary objects from a scene after a bomb attack: “Wedding ring with finger still in it,” and so forth.

Speaking about Three Atmospheric Studies in an interview with Berlin’s Tagesspiegel, Forsythe claimed never to “portray pain directly—it’s too pathetic.” At the same time, he said, “I feel injured and threatened by the world. My art is a result of my own trauma.” The three parts of the performance wrestle between Forsythe’s sense of injury and his reluctance to make it too explicit. Part One is most abstract, to the point of being vague, a bit sloppy and unfocused; Part Three is too lacking in ambiguity and betrays a clumsy hand at expressing satiric rage. Part Two balances these two extremes by virtue of our focus on the character of the mother—whatever her true experience was, we know it was one of pain, and the pain of past experiences is recreated in the attempt to turn them into a narrative.

Thomas Ostermeier has also been grappling with women’s narratives lately—Ibsen’s women’s narratives. In his 2004 production of Nora (A Doll House), Ostermeier showed lingering impulses at proving he was still the enfant terrible whose antics at the Deutsches Theater’s Baracke helped catapult him to the position of Intendant of the Schaubühne. The generic, arbitrary German yelling was in evidence in that production, and the fury climaxed in a decision by Nora to take a handgun and unload its contents into the chest of a dumbfounded Torvald. This year, Ostermeier’s Hedda Gabler shows a lot more subtlety and maturity; he has the temerity to engage in character studies and to build strong, specific connections between the people on stage. Above all, his accomplishment lies in reinterpreting Hedda in a thoroughly modern manner while still seeming to respect the play. The translation by Hinrich Schmidt-Henkel shimmers with a cool spareness; the next English-language translation of Hedda should use Schmidt-Henkel as a model. He slashes Ibsen’s exposition ruthlessly but invisibly, and the diction is reduced to the bare essentials. No talk of vine leaves in Løvborg’s hair— in fact, no talk of hair at all. There are moments, particularly when Hedda is juggling Løvborg and Tesman simultaneously, where you could actually imagine you were watching a scene by Pinter—that’s how acute a sense Schmidt-Henkel has of how few words are needed to move Ibsen’s scenes where they need to go.

Ostermeier transports Hedda into a modern setting. Instead of burning Løvborg’s manuscript, she smashes his laptop to bits. Actress Katharina Schüttler doesn’t feel a need to explain Hedda; she keeps some secrets to herself and relishes the idea that people—Løvborg, Tesman, the audience—will fail to understand her. The ultimate misunderstanding comes at the end: The notion that Hedda might have shot herself occurs to Tesman, but he and Brack laughingly dismiss the idea. Tesman and Mrs. Elvsted continue working on Løvborg’s manuscript, chatting with Brack, while the stage turns to reveal Hedda propped against the wall, bleeding from her temples.

As for Platonow, directed by Karin Henkel, Paul Binnert’s Allein das Meer (Alone the Sea), and Händl Klaus’s Dunkel lockende Welt (Dark Enticing World), they can best be dismissed as competent, but certainly not noteworthy. Henkel shows a talent for spectacle, with locomotives bursting through walls and misty forests of birch trees; her lead actor, Felix Goeser, deserved the award he received at the end of the festival. But spectacle and acting talent were unable to compensate for a weak interpretation of one of Chekhov’s weakest plays. Binnert’s Allein das Meer was brazen enough—via a character’s speech, delivered outward to the audience—to compare itself to Chekhov. Here, however, the endless talk of feelings and relationships does end up being something close to spießig—which is to say trivial, lacking in magnitude. Dunkel lockende Welt suffers from a weak text, always striving for humor and seldom achieving it. Jonathan Kalb once noted that the 480-page jubilee book published for the Theatertreffen’s twenty-fifth anniversary in 1988 listed tables for past jurors, theaters, directors, set designers, costume designers, and dramaturgs—but nothing for playwrights. Händl Klaus’s text is another piece of evidence that the Theatertreffen has a problem finding and highlighting strong playwrights.

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