Monday, 15 June 2015

Postcard from Berlin 3

Maxim Gorki Theater, Common Ground; Komische Oper, West Side Story/Moses und Aron; Hamburg Deutsches Schauspielhaus, John Gabriel Borkman

After seeing Event for a Stage (the last work reviewed in my previous Postcard) I’m left pondering the questions it raises about being an actor, performing in front of an audience, serving a director’s vision, and the peculiar self-consciousness (or self-abnegation) all of this entails. I don’t have any answers, but I’m ready to be an audience-member again and forget myself for a while.

Common Ground is the Maxim Gorki Theater production selected for inclusion in this year’s Theatertreffen. It’s a collaborative work of documentary theatre directed by Israeli theatre-maker Yael Ronen, and co-written by her and the cast – most of whom are from former Yugoslavia, apart from one (Orit Namias) who identifies herself as Israeli (and interested in ‘conflict resolution’), and another (Niels Bormann) who identifies himself as ‘German’ (and gay). These two are the chief comic foils in the piece (and also the chief points of access for the audience), as they vainly struggle to understand the complex identity-politics that still divides the rest of the cast – from each other and more deeply within themselves.

A brief warm-up act by Orit in English – simulaneously and subsersively mistranslated by Niels into German, while alternating surtitles in both languages keep track of what’s really going on – is followed by a high-speed group flashback through the 90s during which the individual cast members relive their pre-war youth. The rest of the play reconstructs the process of how they found (or failed to find) ‘common ground’ while developing the show – primarily through a collective research-trip to post-war Bosnia.

All this might sound didatic or self-indulgent, but to my relief the script, staging and performances are refreshingly witty, physical and sexy – more so in fact than any other theatre I’ve seen so far in Berlin. The show also doesn’t avoid the complexities of its subject matter in the name of facile notions of personal, political or artistic ‘closure’: there are no happy or unhappy endings here, and tensions remain unresolved. Most importantly, the actors seem fully empowered as collaborative theatre-makers rather than mere performers executing the conceptual whims of an auteur-director (unlike the Susanne Kennedy and Castellucci versions of Fassbinder and Holderlin/Sophocles I sat through the previous week).

The most interesting and effective theatrical ‘device’ is that two of the young female actors tacitly swap roles and play each other: a young Bosnian Muslim whose father was killed in a massacre, and a young Bosnian Serb whose father supervised the same massacre (and is still an active politician in a post-war Serbian enclave). The two women meet at an audition, become best friends, eventually realise their tangled connection, and embrace at the end of the show. The role-swap isn’t explicitly acknowledged, but hinted at when one corrects the other over tiny details during the latter’s monologue about ‘her’ father’s death. It’s later confirmed for me by one of the actors in question, when I chat with her in halting German at the theatre bar after the show. We linger in the foyer for a post-show concert of ‘Balkan Soul’ sung by another female actor from Sarajevo (whom she refers to as ‘her hero’), and I think about the ironies of an Israeli director coming to Berlin to work with a cast of Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims on a play about genocide.

I remember earlier that day seeing a sheet hanging out of the upper-floor window of an apartment building in Kreuzberg, and painted with the words: ‘No border, no nation.’ Tonight in the Maxim Gorki Theatre at least, those words ring true. In a similar vein, after every performance I attend at the Theatertreffen, the actors return to the stage and read aloud from a manifesto, ‘My Right Is Your Right!’, calling for the right of asylum seekers to move and live freely within the EU and to be protected from discrimination. ‘The asylum policies in Germany and Europe have failed,’ the manifesto proclaims. ‘The processes and dealings with refugees in Berlin have shown that this city is not the open metropolis it claims to be.’ I think with shame of my own country’s current policy of ‘stopping the boats’. Old habits, it seems, die hard, in Europe as well as back home.


The following night I’m at the Komische Oper for Barrie Kosky’s production of West Side Story. Barrie is in my opinion easily the most significant theatre and opera director to have come out of Australia in the last twenty-five years, comparable with Jim Sharman or Neil Armfield in terms of theatrical instinct, stagecraft and showmanship, but otherwise utterly different in terms of his hybrid aesthetic – which is broadly cosmopolitan, postmodernist (or perhaps more specifically post-surrealist), iconoclastically Jewish and high camp in equal measure. At its best, his work achieves a sense of delirium and even nightmare like nothing else I’ve seen onstage; I still count his productions of The Dybbuk with Gilgul Theatre and The Lost Echo with the STC Actors Company as two of the most exhilarating and terrifying nights I’ve had in the theatre or anywhere else. He also led the way for a new generation of young male Australian directors on the national and international stage that includes Benedict Andrews, Matt Lutton and Simon Stone. Since 2012 he's been the Intendant and Chief Director at the Komische Opera; after his first season, it was voted ‘Opera House of the Year’. Under his leadership the company stages equally radical versions of baroque, classical, romantic and modern operas alongside Broadway musicals and Viennese operettas. I’m equally impressed by the fact that he’s had screens installed in the back of the seats with surtitles in Turkish as well as English, German and French. His stated philosophy is not to try to please everyone, but simply to do what he loves. With houses at 85% of capacity, it seems to be working; his contract was recently extended to 2022.

Before being appointed Indendant he scored a huge success at the Komische Oper with Kiss Me Kate, and has since championed the Broadway musical as a vital offshoot of the European operatic tradition transplanted to America by the Jewish cultural diaspora (the same argument can be extended to the Hollywood film industry, as Simon Schama does in The Story of the Jews). West Side Story fits the bill perfectly, with its brilliant Bernstein score, scintillating Sondheim lyrics, ambitious original choreography by Jerome Robbins (replaced in this production with a thrilling new dance score by Otto Pichler) and book by Arthur Laurents – the whole thing inspired by Romeo and Juliet and transplanted to the youth gangs of 1950s immigrant New York (or in this production, a contemporary globalized city that could be anywhere in the world). The staging is lean and minimal (apart from a spectacular mirror-ball sequence), leaving the music and drama to speak for themselves. In fact it’s probably the least ‘interventionist’ Kosky production I’ve seen – apart from one song, the heart-rending ‘Somewhere’, whose Utopian sense of longing is heightened by the addition of an elderly couple who dance and hold hands with the two young leads (engagingly played and sung by Jasmina Sakr and Michael Pflumm).

As with Common Ground the previous night, I find the whole show an intelligent, visceral and deeply moving statement about tribalism and love. It’s an extra treat hearing Bernstein’s rhythmically biting, colouristically dazzling, melodically and harmonically ravishing score played by a full orchestra. All in all, Barrie makes a convincing case for the work as a cornerstone of the 20th century musical-dramatic repertoire, operatic or otherwise.


On Saturday night I return to the Festpielhaus for my final sample from the Theatertreffen: the Hamburg Deutsches Schauspielhaus production of Ibsen’s penultimate play, John Gabriel Borkman, directed by Karin Henkel.

Ibsen’s late works mark a return from the social and domestic realism of his middle period to the more psychological and symbolic landscapes of his early verse-dramas Brandt and Peer Gynt. In fact the last act of John Gabriel Borkman literally takes us out of the drawing-room and back into the wilderness, as the two main characters (and former lovers, who – as always in Ibsen – have denied themselves and each other for the sake of ‘the world’) leave the house and go out into the snowbound forest to die; the play’s successor, When We Dead Awaken, ends even more spectacularly with its lovers buried in an avalanche. These last two plays are thus as ‘literally’ unstageable as the first twowhich is to not to say that they can’t be staged at all, but rather that they can’t be staged literally. In this respect, they anticipate the 'dream plays' of Strindberg and the advent of Expressionism.

Henkel’s production makes broad gestures in support of this stylistic transition: once again, all the actors wear masks (which are sporadically and to all intents and purposes randomly removed and then replaced again); Borkman’s wife Gunhild (Julia Wieninger) periodically rushes over to an organ at the side of the stage and interrupts the dialogue with a deranged hymn; Borkman himself (Josef Ostnendorf) is visible upstage from the beginning of the play lying on a slab as if prematurely emtombed (rather than being heard invisibly walking up and down in his room upstairs until Act Two); and everyone’s movements and delivery are exaggerated beyond the edge of parody (the mortally yet mysteriously ailing Ella Rentheim, in a show-stealing turn by Lina Beckmann, is given a twitching, spasmodic physicality that has the audience continually laughing out loud).

It’s all entertaining and clever enough, in a post-Brechtian pantomine kind of way, but I can’t help feeling that the play is being kept at a cerebral and mocking distance rather than being seriously engaged with. Ironically, the most successful scene theatrically is arguaby the weakest-written in the play: the melodramatic confrontation in Act Three between the estranged parents, their son Erhart (Jan-Peter Kampwirth), his English mistress Mrs Wilton (Kate Strong) and their young and willing helpmeet Frida (Gala Winter). It’s played as a camp comedy-of-manners, but completely avoids the sense of catastrophe being transmitted from one generation to the next, which is Ibsen’s obsessive preoccupation. Conversely, the transcendent Fourth Act – which concludes with Borkman’s death on a bench in the snow overlooking a fjord, while the rival twin sisters Gunhilde and Ella take hands over his corpse (‘We two shadows – over the dead man’) – is here reduced to a non-event taking place back inside the house.

One wonders, what was the point of staging it at all? For a production of a play about facing the past, the whole thing seems more like an exercise in denial. The program is replete with the usual obligatory quotes from Nietzsche, Rilke, Freud and Canetti, but the production itself has nothing to say to me – except perhaps, that if you’re going to tackle Ibsen, especially the late plays, you need to be up for the climb. As Ella says to Borkman at the start of Act Four, as they gaze out over the fjord and the mountains beyond: ‘We have often sat on this bench before, and looked out into a much further distance. It was the dreamland of our life. And now that land is buried in snow.’ As with all great plays: if you can’t go there, don’t go there. It’s as simple as that.


I’m back at the Komische Oper on Sunday for another new Kosky production: Schönberg’s Moses Und Aron. Arguably the composer’s masterpiece, it’s rarely performed, as much because of his forbidding reputation as the work’s actual musical and dramatic challenges. The score is relentlessly demanding, and unlike most operatic music, non-figurative (although still composed of musical ‘figures’), in the sense that it doesn’t represent what’s happening onstage directly (or at least not according to the habitual connotations of tonal music) but in a rigorously codified and symbolic form, according to logic of the twelve-tone system invented by Schönberg himself. In other words: unlike the music of Wagner, Strauss or the Hollywood cinema-scores they spawned, it’s not a soundtrack providing dramatic or narrative cues but a pure language of its own, with its own grammar and syntax but free from the baggage of semantics. As such it’s an appropriate musical expression for the content of the work, which deals with the contradiction (and mutual entanglement) between pure thought and figurative language, as exemplified by the two Biblical brothers: Moses (here sung by Wagnerian baritone Robert Hayward, although his part is mostly scored as Sprechgesang or 'sung-spoken'), who experiences the thought of God directly through visions and can work miracles; and the more mellifluous Aron (tenor John Daszak), who can interpret and communicate these ‘messages’ to the masses through the medium of language, but only by reducing and betraying their content in the process.

If all this sounds abstract and schematic (and indeed is in Schönberg’s somewhat didactic libretto) Barrie’s gift for visual storytelling vividly brings it to life by linking the story and themes to the entire post-Biblical history of the Jews, and the paradoxes and paroxysms of monotheistic culture and civilization – up to and including Zionism, Broadway, Hollywood and the Holocaust (the production commemorates the 70th Anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945). Moses and Aron are a pair of roadside magicians performing cheap conjuring tricks; the chorus become the gullible contemporary masses; the Dance of the Golden Calf is performed by gold-attired showgirls (male and female) from the 1920s; and the final sacrificial orgy is enacted by the entire chorus brandishing mannequins which are then torn apart and piled up to form a genocidal mass-grave, while being filmed from the wings by two figures using old-fashioned movie cameras and wearing oversized head-masks that look like Freud and Theodor Herzl. Unlike West Side Story, the action is crammed into a relatively confined space, with a low ceiling, large circular down-lights and a steep wide staircase at the back as the only entrance and exit. It looks a little like a hotel lobby or theatre foyer, unfurnished except for a motley collection of Persian rugs on the floor. Moses emerges by unrolling himself from inside one at the beginning, and covers himself again at the end.

Musically and dramatically though, the night belongs to the Komische Oper Chorus, and to Barrie’s stagecraft when it comes to mobilising them. There must be at least a hundred of them onstage and singing for practically the duration of the performance (which runs for about an hour and 45 minutes without interval); and instead of the stand-and-deliver approach which is customary for traditional opera choruses (let alone for a score as demanding as this), here they’re in a continuous state of frenzied animation, physically as well as emotionally. It’s a remarkable feat – and a compelling image of mass psychology in action. It’s also in keeping with the distinctive performance tradition of the company, whose founding director Walter Felsenstein was famous for his Bewegungsregie or ‘movement-direction’. Musically, the whole thing is held together by the masterful conducting of Vladimir Jurowski. It’s hard to believe the same orchestra was doing West Side Story here only two nights ago.

When Moses sings the last words of Act Two (literally, ‘Das Wort mich fehlen!’ –‘Words fail me!’) and covers himself again with a rug before sinking into the pile of mannequins, there’s a prolonged silence as the curtain slowly descends. Schönberg never completed the score for Act Three; but I can’t imagine anything that could possibly follow that devastating final image.


On my last day in Berlin, I decide to visit my grandparents. I catch the U-Bahn to Potzdamer Platz, walk to the corner of Hannah-Arendt-Strasse and thread my way through the vast field of concrete stelae until I find the steps that lead down to the underground information centre of Peter Eisenman’s Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe. I enlist the help of a young man who works there to navigate the computer touch-screens, and eventually we find two entries that seem to match: Max Bauer, born in 1875, and Regine Bauer, born in 1887; same wartime address in Vienna; same transport number to Theresienstadt ghetto on 10/7/1942; same second transport number to Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp on 28/10/1944. Their prisoner numbers are adjacent, for both transports. I hope that means they travelled together, right up until the end.


Humph’s next Postcard will be from New York.

Monday, 1 June 2015

Postcard from Berlin [2] 

The Story of Berlin/Theatertreffen (2): The Unmarried Ones/Tacita Dean: Event for a Stage

On Wednesday morning I visit ‘The Story of Berlin’: a rather cheesy interactive museum for tourists and school-groups located in a shopping arcade on the Kurfürstendamm. Its biggest drawcard is an underground nuclear bunker which was built in the 1970s and ostensibly meant to house 3,600 people and provide them with shelter, food, water and air until the immediate effects of radiation had abated. I join a group of French, American and Japanese tourists led by a cheerful young student. We follow her into an underground carpark, squeeze into a tiny elevator and descend several floors to emerge into a vast concrete underworld. Our guide conducts us through a labyrinth of corridors and chambers filled with wash-basins (no mirrors), showers (no curtains) and toilet-cubicles (no doors), culminating in a cavernous space filled with row after row of narrow bunks tightly stacked four layers high. I can’t help wondering how long people would have survived down here, in what conditions, or to what ultimate end. In fact the whole set-up makes me think of a subterranean concentration camp; at best, a clumsy exercise in propaganda; at worst, a grim extension of totalitarianism – and this, be it noted, in the so-called ‘free zone’ of the former West Berlin.

The rest of the museum (located in the upper floors of the shopping arcade) is a little more kitsch, with stairways and room-displays leading chronologically through the city’s history, and featuring costumed mannequins, theatrical sets, furniture, props and sound-effects. When we get to the Weimar Republic, there’s even a miniature cinema screening excerpts from the heyday of the silent and early sound era, when German films briefly led the world. Then comes the Depression, political chaos, and things rapidly go downhill: a long winding staircase literally descends to a basement level with room after room documenting the successive catastrophes of Nazism, the Second World War, the Holocaust, the Allied destruction of Berlin, and the subsequent decades of Communism and the Cold War.

I re-emerge into the thriving bustle of modern-day Kufürstendamm with its fashion outlets, chain-stores and advertising billboards an hour later with the sense that no comparable European capital city witnessed such reversals of fortune, whether self-inflicted or externally imposed (which is not to minimize the devastations of Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima or Nagasaki). In the case of Berlin, a thoroughly modernized avant-garde metropolis that rivalled London, Paris or New York once went through the same whirwind as Baghdad or Damascus now. It’s a sobering reminder for those of us who’ve grown up associating such images of destruction with the underdeveloped world, from Vietnam to Iraq – and somehow brings such contemporary zones of war and conflict closer to home. Further down the Kufürstendamm I pass the bombed ruins of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church flanked by its 1950s brutalist concrete, steel and glass successor and matching bell-tower. Past and present co-habit uneasily in this city of scars and memories.


That night at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele I see a classic example of what might be called the contemporary German-language trauma-play. In fact it’s one of two productions from Vienna by the Burgtheater in Akademietheater that have been selected by the jury of the Theatertreffen. Die Unverheirateten (‘The Unmarried’) is a new play by Ewald Palmetshofer, directed and designed by Robert Borgmann. The story concerns a woman, ‘The Old One’ (played by famous Viennese stage veteran Elisabeth Orth) who reported a soldier to the Nazi authorities for talking about desertion during the closing months of the war. Her ‘betrayal’ led to his execution, and after the war she was herself tried and imprisoned by the Allied authorities for being a Nazi informer. However, she had also fallen pregnant to the same soldier, and given birth to a daughter, ‘The Middle One’ (Christiane von Pöllnitz) – who in turn subsequently had a daughter of her own, ‘The Young One’ (Stefanie Reinsperger), again without acknowledging the identity of the father. All three generations of women keep secrets from each other, and needless to say have failed to find permanent partners or have stable relationships. Now the grandmother has been hospitalized with a stroke; her grandaughter visits her; and the truth about the past begins to emerge.

Palmetshofer uses a heightened poetic language (I had to rely heavily on the English surtitles) which tumbles out mostly in monologues delivered either directly to the audience or to one of the other women as silent interlocutors. Borgmann’s staging is similarly abstract, dynamic, metaphorical and even visceral: the floor is covered with earth with which the actors smear or bury themselves (and even at one point shove into their mouths); wooden furniture is hacked with axes; billowing walls of cloth repeatedly rise and fall like huge curtains. There’s also a slightly camp cabaret chorus of four younger women who intermittently (and somewhat gratingly) comment on the action (I found these sections the least persuasive in the show). The three central performances however are gripping, especially the mostly immobile and impassive figure of Orth as the grandmother. All in all, despite some welcome leavenings of humour (mostly from Reinsperger as the accordion-playing, wisecracking, self-degrading grandaughter), it’s a relentlessly grim two hours of trauma-theatre, even if there’s a sense of reconciliation and healing at the end. I’m reminded a little of Bernard Schlink’s novel The Reader, another parable of guilt, betrayal, secrets, misunderstandings, recrimination and (perhaps) forgiveness. The Unmarried however comes across more like an all-female post-war Oresteia. Once again, German theatre reaches back to its Greek antecedents.


On Thursday afternoon I catch up with an Austrian friend who lives and works in Berlin as an actor, singer and teacher. We meet in Schöneberg and have lunch (Spargel, the huge, white and deliciously sweet asparagus that are currently in season and dominate every street vendor’s stall and restaurant menu). Then we wander the streets of her neighborhood, and she tells me about living and working here. I’m envious of all the permanent ensemble companies; but as she points out, not every actor is suited to that kind of employment regime; and I sense the same old conflict between job security and creative freedom that bedevils actors everywhere. Oh, well. At least in Berlin you have a choice.

She walks me back to the Festspiele, where I’m seeing the premiere screening of English visual artist Tacita Dean’s Event for a Stage. Dean is an artist I admire, especially for her work in (and advocacy for) the medium (and materiality) of film as an endangered species (as opposed to video, which is rapidly displacing it). Invited to make a work of theatre for the first time in 1994, she approached the English actor Stephen Dillane (perhaps best known for his TV work in John Adams and Game of Thrones, but previously a stage actor renowned for his Hamlet and one-man Macbeth) and invited him to collaborate with her on a project, without knowing exactly what it would turn out to be.

In the 'event', so to speak, four consecutive public performances by Dillane were staged in the round at Carriageworks in Sydney and filmed by two roving cameras circling the actor (and each other). This in turn provided the raw material for a 50-minute film based on shots spliced together from all four performances (Dillane wore a different wig each night and varied his facial hair). The text (which also appears to be at least partly by Dillane) is based on conversations with Dean, reflections on acting and performance, revelations about recent family losses, a speech from The Tempest by Prospero to his daughter, and extracts from Kleist’s famous essay ‘On the Marionette Theatre’ –which among other things outlines a kind of natural history of consciousness and posits the ultimate supercession of the live performer by the marionette (and perhaps more generally of the human by the machine).

Beneath the text and performance one senses a testiness verging on hostility from the actor towards the artist and the project itself. Some extracts from the published script (which tellingly is credited to Dean alone without acknowledging the evident role of Dillane as at least its co-author) illustrate this tension, which for me animated the work with a sense of drama (and indeed dramatic irony, to refer again to Kleist) and raised it above the level of conceptual art or mere dissertation:

The artist told me she has filmed people before…but this time she is trying to film a process, a craft, a profession. She is interested in what she calls ‘self-consciousness’…It is something she doesn’t like to see in her films, she says, her subjects being aware of themselves, aware of themselves being watched…

She ­– the artist – asked me to play the role of an actor, the role of the actor being filmed on stage. She said she wanted to make a portrait of an actor on context, in his natural habitat, like a beast in its lair. 

I said I don’t really do stage acting anymore.

‘Don’t you?’ she said. ‘Well, why did you agree to come?’

Dillane delivers all this with barely disguised irritation – occasionally breaking off to snatch pages of script from the artist, who is sitting in the front row. At one point he drops the script and exits, banging the fire door behind him. The theatre audience (and we, the cinema audience) sit there waiting uncertainly for what seems like minutes, before he finally returns and finishes the performance, with a final moving revelation about the family tragedy that preceded him coming here.
I find Dillane a compelling presence onstage and onscreen: in fact I can’t imagine anyone else pulling off a similar double-act. Watching him endlessly pacing, circling and weaving like a prisoner, I’m reminded of Rilke’s great poem about the panther: ‘His gaze has become so tired from going over and over/ The bars of his cage that he sees nothing more. / It seems to him as if there were a thousand bars; / And beyond those thousand bars, no world.’


Humph’s third and final Postcard from Berlin will be posted next week.