Monday, 18 May 2015

Postcard from Berlin 

Kreuzberg/Museum Bergruen/Theatertreffen/Castellucci at the Schaubühne

My train pulled into Berlin Ostbahnhof on May 1: not the most convenient date to arrive in Berlin, as I soon discovered. None of the taxis would take me to Kreuzberg because of the festivities and riots that traditionally take place there on May Day, and when I boarded the U-Bahn it was crammed with partygoers and wannabe-revolutionaries. It took me most of the afternoon to get to my Airbnb apartment, which was ideally situated between Görlitzer Park and the cafés and clubs on the Landwehr Canal. It turned out to be in the thick of the action, with music, dancing and police cars cruising the normally quiet tree-lined street.

Here I met up with a friend from Stuttgart and we joined the crowds. We ended up at a rambling Southern Gothic canal-side bar which was like something out of a Rodriguez/Tarantino movie. There was even a Burlesque Olympics floor-show later that night, after which all the goths and drag queens presumably turned into vampires (we didn’t hang around long enough to find out).

The rest of the weekend was comparatively peaceful. On Saturday my friend took me to visit the Museum Berggruen in Charlottenburg: a lovely light-filled neo-classical building with a wonderful collection of classic modernist works by Picasso, Matisse, Paul Klee and Giacometti. There was a special exhibition juxtaposing paintings and drawings by Klee with mobiles by Alexander Calder. When we activated one by gently blowing on it the museum guards wagged their fingers and shook their heads: ‘Verboten!’ In another room was a small screen showing a charming film from the late 1920s of Calder’s ‘Circus’, which showed the artist playing with his miniature object-theatre like an exuberant child (the museum guards must have been horrified).

I found myself entranced by the innocence and plasticity of Calder and Klee’s imaginations. In room after room of Picassos, on the other hand, I was struck by the artist’s obsessive fixation with women (from one decade, style and indeed woman to the next) as mysterious and ultimately frustrating objects of desire. It was a far cry from the Matisse retrospective I’d seen in Amsterdam at the Stedelijk Museum earlier that week. In his increasingly simplified paintings and cut-outs women had seemed on the contrary to be figures of freedom and joie-de-vivre.

We spent Sunday morning wandering Görlitzer Park past the Turkish families having picnics beneath the chestnut trees with their portable barbecues (and the ubiquitous Africian drug dealers hovering hopefully beneath every other tree). Then we had an afternoon drink by the canal at the deliciously chilled-out Club der Visionäre (recommended by one of my daughters), where I pretended I was in my 20s again (and a hipster at long last). 

Kreuzberg reminded me a little of a Turkish-infused version of the St Kilda I lived in twenty years ago. Before re-unification it was an enclave-within-an-enclave, surrounded on three sides by the Berlin Wall (as was West Berlin itself in relation to the rest of East Germany). In the 70s it became a magnet for the immigrant Turkish community as well as bohemian artists, musicians and punks because of the availability of cheap housing, squats and improvised venues and studios. When the Wall came down, the district suddenly found itself in the centre of the old/new Berlin, just south of the high-culture museum-district of Mitte in the former east. Now the twin scourges of gentrification and backpacker-tourism were visibly well underway. Nevertheless ‘X-Berg’ clearly still saw itself as the centre of the action. In the warm spring weather, locals and visitors wandered the streets drinking beer from bottles or sat at tables outside the endless kebab shops and bars. By the end of the weekend I was feeling very much at home.


After seeing my friend off at Berlin Hauptbahnof, it was time for some serious theatregoing. I’d arrived here just in time for the annual Theatertreffen, a kind of festival-showcase featuring the ten ‘most remarkable’ German-language productions of the past year by companies from all over Germany, Austria and Switzerland (as selected by an artistic ‘jury’), together with a Stückemarkt of playreadings and a raft of workshops, discussion-forums, film-screenings, exhibitions and related events held in venues all over the city, but principally at the all-purpose festival centre known as the Haus der Berliner Festspiele. As such, it seemed like the ideal opportunity to experience a (no doubt partial) overview of what was currently happening in German theatre, as well as a taste of Berlin’s manifold other offerings, cultural and otherwise. (Actually the dates also coincided neatly with a three-week break in the series of voice, text and movement workshops I’d been doing in Orkney with Kristin Linklater. I’ll postpone writing about the whole experience of studying with Kristin in Orkney for a future Postcard.)

Perhaps more than anywhere else in the world, Germany is blessed with a plethora of high-quality, highly attended and heavily funded theatre and dance companies, opera houses, orchestras and other artistic and cultural institutions. In part this can be attributed to the history of the concept of die Kultur (which means both ‘culture’ and ‘civilization’) which was seen at least since the 18th Century as playing an essential role in the formation of the individual and the community – a concept which is entirely absent in Australia except among Aboriginal people, for whom it goes without saying that participating in and having access to your ‘culture’ is vital to the notion of who you are. It’s also a by-product of the political history of Germany, which – at least until the rise to dominance of Prussia in the late 19th Century, and perhaps even not until the totalitarian centralization of the Nazi state in the 20th – was a loose confederation of independent kingdoms, principalities, dukedoms, bishoprics, imperial electorates, city-states and regional territories, each with its own distinct cultural identity.

The result is that cities like Hamburg, Munich, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Leipzig and Dresden today all have their own signature theatre and ballet companies, opera houses and orchestras. In the case of Berlin, the situation is heightened by its post-War history of partition and reunification, which has effectively bequeathed it the cultural resources of two cities in one, including three major opera houses (the Staatsoper and the Komische Oper in the former east, and the Deutsche Oper in the former west) and at least five major theatre companies (counting the Deutsches Theater, the Berliner Ensemble, the Volksbühne and the Maxim Gorki Theatre in the former east and the Schaubühne in the former west – and not including the substantial Freieszene or independent scene).

All these institutions are funded primarily at a municipal level by the cities themselves; and it’s notable that there are no ‘national’ or even ‘state’ companies, at least not as we know them in Australia. Perhaps that’s because terms like ‘national’ have a particularly ominous historical resonance in Germany. In fact the Germans – and the Berliners in particular – have a relationship with the past which Australians could learn something from. In short: they acknowledge and take responsibility for the fact that shit happened. Indeed, ‘the relationship with the past’ – as thematic content, interpretative process and social function –  is central to German theatre (as it is arguably to Western theatre in general from the Greeks onwards). Hence the continual and radical reinterpretation of classic plays in German theatres as a lense through which to view the present, as well as the preponderance of new plays that deal with recent history.


I headed off to the Festspiele on Sunday night for a reading of a new play called Der Staat (‘The State’) by Bulgarian writer Alexander Maluinoff, which was tantalizingly described in the brochure as having neither a director nor a cast. We sat in a circle in a darkened room, surrounding a tightly-lit table with a stack of envelopes on it, a microphone dangling above and a waste-paper bin nearby. After a few minutes of silence and stillness, the penny dropped and someone in the audience got up, went over to the table, opened the uppermost envelope, took out a sheet of paper and read the contents aloud into the microphone, before discarding the waste-paper into the bin. And so it continued. The ‘letters’ were ‘from’ a young Bulgarian man who – it emerged – had publicly set himself on fire in 2013 in protest against what he simply called ‘the state’. They varied in length and lucidity, successively and simultaneously invoking the writer’s psychological ‘state’, the political ‘state’ against which he was protesting, his impending act of political ‘theatre’ and/or the act of literal theatre in which we were now complicit.

I found the concept fascinating, but was surprised by the audience’s resistance, which took the form of reading letters silently and refusing to share them, throwing them in the bin, walking out, reshuffling the envelopes, or acting out various other ‘clever’, subversive or mocking scenarios. Nevertheless – even in this degraded form – the play had its own ineluctable dramatic tension, as it interrogated ever more urgently the ontology of politics and indeed theatre itself, implicitly asking the question of what it means to stage or enact something, in the flickering light of the letter-writer’s imminent auto-da-fé.

At the end of the performance, I got up and read (again) the haunting final letter (which someone else had previously read out of sequence and then discarded), before pocketing it and walking out. I reproduce the contents of the letter here, without futher comment:

The Performance wants us to stand up. If we do so, the Performance will slowly come to an end. And we will have some time to observe the imaginary flames coming out of the urn. Can we see them? Can we sense the smell? Would we dare make a real fire out of it? What are we afraid of? What are we waiting for? Or do we think that even if we dare, they will still not let us do it? Do what? (PAUSE. TAKE A DEEP BREATH. IT’S OKAY. IT’S OKAY.) We may clap now. Yes, we are asked to start clapping now. Is there anything else we can do?


The following evening I was back at the Festspiele for a performance by the Münchner Kammerspiele of Warum läuft Herr R. Amok? directed by Susanne Kennedy and based on the film by Rainer Maria Fassbinder about a humble officer-worker and family-man who finally ‘runs amok’ in his living-room and slaughters his neighbour, wife and son. It would have been Fassbinder’s 70th birthday this year (he took a lethal cocktail of cocaine and barbiturates in 1982) and he was the Theatertreffen’s ‘Focus’ artist, with multiple stagings, screenings and discussions of his films, as well as a major exhibition at the Martin-Gropius-Bau entitled ‘Fassbinder – Now’. 

In the event, like so many ‘homages’, the play turned out to be an excruciatingly didactic exercise. Five actors wearing full-face silicone masks and hideous 70s retro costumes re-enacted the entire film scene-by-scene on an even more hideous 70s retro set. To make matters worse, they mimed all the action and dialogue to a soundtrack featuring non-actors’ voices and generic sound effects (doors opening and closing, cars passing, drinks being poured, food being eaten, heads being bashed in, etc). It was mesmerizing for the first few scenes (each of which seems to take forever because of the difference between film and theatre-time), but became unendurable over the next two hours and ten minutes (no interval). 

The only interesting variation came when the actors begin randomly swapping characters, which only gradually became apparent because of the masks, costumes and sountrack. Otherwise, it was a spectacular demonstration of the fact that imitation is the worst form of flattery. The sense of social and psychological claustrophobia that was once so fresh and alive in Fassbinder’s films – and unique to their time and place, to him as an artist, and to his mastery of the medium – here became a leaden form of repetition that did nothing more than restate the obvious, without regard for (or in defiance of) the actors, the audience and the medium of theatre itself. Alas, it was a pattern I was going to see repeated over the next ten days.


The following night I ventured beyond the confines of the Theatertreffen to see a new production of Hölderlin’s translation of Oedipus directed by Romeo Castellucci at the Schaubühne. Cult mad-genius poet-translator meets cult avant-garde contemporary-performance director meets cult alternative-cool theatre company: what could possibly go wrong?

In fact the opening twenty minutes were spellbinding: an almost wordless ballet (apart from the odd Latin chant) featuring a silent order of nuns coming and going about their business while shifting furniture, objects and black sliding walls on and off stage, the whole thing softly lit behind a scrim, like a painting by Georges de La Tour. This dumb-show told the story of the illness and death of an old nun, and the discovery by one of her fellow sisters of a hidden copy of Hölderlin’s Oedipus propping up one of the legs of her bed. She then began reading the book aloud, whereupon the scrim flew up and the black walls disappeared, revealing a vast new all-white space (vaguely reminiscent of a Greek temple) in which Sophocles’s tragedy now unfolded, with the nun-reader becoming the leader of the chorus (played by the other nuns) and all the other roles also played by women (except for Tiresias, the man-woman seer). Costumes were now also white, with the main characters dressed to represent Biblical figures: Oedipus as a female Christ, Jocasta as Mary, Kreon as Peter (in his dual capacity as betrayer and successor) and Tiresias as John the Baptist (complete with a wooden cross and a very patient live lamb).

The whole thing was brilliantly conceived, beautifully staged, intensely performed – and ultimately left me cold. Deafening sound effects when Tiresias delivered his parting curse only underscored the emotional hollowness of the staging; and things got worse with a long projection sequence (during the offstage suicide of Jocasta and blinding of Oedipus) featuring Castellucci himself being sprayed with a toxic chemical used by police to subdue offenders. This came across as a clumsy piece of self-dramatizing thinly disguised as a vaguely political artistic statement, which only undermined the aesthetic integrity of what had gone before.

Of course such successive coups de théâtre  – or perhaps anti-theatre – are in a sense integral to Castellucci’s work, since he has long declared his commitent to the legacy of Artaud through (among other things) the practice of continually pulling the rug from under the audience’s feet by disrupting the form of what we thought we were watching. This can be enthralling, as in the case of previous Castellucci productions I’ve seen – Genesi: From the Museum of Sleep and On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God – both which eschewed narrative completely. Here however it came across as nothing less than a self-subverting fear and mistrust in relation to the power of the text to speak to a contemporary audience without sign-posting, visual shorthand or stage-tricks.

This reached its absurd conclusion with the play’s devastating final chorus, which ends with words to the effect of ‘call no man happy until he reaches the end of life without suffering’. Here it was performed by a trio of palpitating post-human Patricia Piccini-like puppets and accompanied by a distorted recording of the text punctuated by farting sounds. The audience giggled, and the actors took their curtain-call with the pained smiles actors always have when they know they’ve been asked to perform the impossible and faithfully done their duty. For my part, I wished the production had remained with the nuns in their convent, and allowed them inhabit and embody Sophocles’s play and Hölderlin’s words. But for a director like Castellucci, it seems, enough is never enough.


Humph's next Postcard from Berlin will be posted next week.

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