Sing, O Muses of the House of Ceaseless Disasters!
In the past three years, the drama behind the scenes at the Volksbühne in Berlin has surpassed every stage. To say the company was struggling would put it mildly: depending on your point of view, what is happening is increasingly resembling either a Greek tragedy or a satyr play.
Since 2017, a malfunction, if not a downright misfortune, has haunted the venerable theater, which, like most in Berlin, is run publicly. It began when the then Minister of Culture dismissed the long-time artistic director Frank Castorf, who had run the house for 25 years and, as is known, ruled with an iron fist. Berlin politicians passed the torch on to Chris Dercon, a former director of Tate Modern in London.
Berliners protested vehemently; The theater was briefly occupied by demonstrators. Feces were left outside Dercon’s office. He resigned only a few months later and was replaced by Klaus Dörr, who was to fill the position until René Pollesch, one of the leading German playwrights and veteran of the Volksbühne von Castorf, took over the artistic direction in 2021.
Last week, Dörr abruptly resigned because of sexual harassment. In the midst of a difficult season for theaters worldwide, the Volksbühne has pushed ahead with an ambitious series of premieres inspired by the ancient Greek drama and myth “Polis / Reset”.
Although the cycle examines the relevance of its classical sources from the contemporary perspective of the environmental and economic diseases of our world, the themes of discontented gods, inevitable fates and tragic shortcomings of the Volksbühne seem strangely appropriate in view of its longstanding bad luck.
Half of the eight productions planned for “Polis / Reset” will be streamed on the Volksbühne’s website. The shows are diverse, but they all face to varying degrees the existential problems humanity faces in the Anthropocene, the period when humans have the dominant influence on the natural world.
“Oedipus is the last king of the Anthropocene. This is our last winter. Nobody will escape this catastrophe ”, says an actor early in“ Anthropos, Tyrann (Oedipus) ”. an associative and sometimes pedantic stage essay by screenwriter Alexander Eisenach. Of the productions in the Volksbühne series, this one, which is loosely based on Sophocles’ Theban Plays, deals most directly with environmental and economic destruction. In the middle of the performance, the marine biologist and climate expert Antje Boetius gives an informative, albeit dry, lecture on the Anthropocene.
I’ve enjoyed some of the faster slogans like “Tragedy Has Become the Language of Science” and “Raising the Wrath of the Gods is not a metaphor. It’s very real. “But it’s possible to agree while still feeling like the show is rough around the edges.
Since it could not be shown in front of a live audience, the theater presented it as a live stream in 360 degrees: It was filmed with an omnidirectional camera and the audience at home could control their perspective on the stage. The effect was kind of cool, although it seemed like an interesting experiment with technology rather than a full-fledged production. My internet connection was too weak to display in crisp 4K as intended.
Oedipus and the other rulers of antiquity were judged on their ability to keep nature in balance and to make the deities happy. The director Lucia Bihler has the divine anger in “Iphigenia. Sad and horny in the Taurerland “ a revision of the two Iphigenia pieces by Euripides, peppered with cheeky dialogues by the young Austrian writer Stefanie Sargnagel.
In the original, Agamemnon, King of Mycenae and commander of the Greek fleet, sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia to the goddess Artemis in order to obtain favorable winds for sailing. Bühler’s staging points to environmental parallels: with the refusal of the deities to give mankind the power of nature, and with the thought of pledging the future represented by the child sacrifice. In the disrespectful second half of the evening, Iphigenia (the young American-born actress Vanessa Loibl) is taken to the island of Tauris, where she works in a call center with a vulgar, funny gang of women who put up with verbal abuse by prank callers.
Iphigenia’s Sacrifice is the preamble to “The Oresteia”, Aeschylus’ tragic trilogy about Agamemnon’s family. In 1931, the young German director Pinar Karabulut dealt with Eugene O’Neill’s play cycle “Mourning Becomes Electra”. which broadcasts the action of “The Oresteia” from old Argos to New England shortly after the civil war. Although there is much to admire in Karabulut’s muscular production, it turns O’Neill’s tragic cycle into a bleak and sordid soap opera.
On the upside, the production looks great: sleek and stylish, with colorful costumes and props dominated by red and blues. The atmosphere of surreal domestic horror is enhanced by visual references to David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” and Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby”. These scenes are actually disturbing, but they also seem irrelevant. Another element that doesn’t quite work is an engaging monologue about the race by Malick Bauer, the only black actor in the company’s cast. The monologue, written by a dramaturge, Laura Dabelstein, is a very politically incorrect examination of prejudices in Germany, which is intended to shake up the audience, among other things through the repeated use of the N-word. It’s a powerful text and Bauer delivers it with conviction, but it feels like a forced imperative for topicality.
O’Neill’s piece is one of a long line of works that have been re-designed from Greek sources. One of the earliest is the “Metamorphoses” of the Roman poet Ovid, which was written in 8 AD and comprises around 250 myths. In this epic poem women turn into trees and birds, drowned men turn into flowers and gods turn into animals.
Like “Iphigenia”, Claudia Bauer’s “Metamorphoses” [overcoming mankind]“Doesn’t weigh on relevance. It’s a compelling production that combines surreal pantomime and singing. For the majority of the performance, the actors wear blank masks. They become mythical characters through movement, accompanied by live music (with accordion virtuoso Valentin Butt) and voice-over narration by actors whose faces are projected across the stage.
“Metamorphoses” suggests the transformative world of myth as an alternative to the Anthropocene. Although there is a lot of violence in Ovid, including cannibalism and rape, the production maintains the enchanted symbiosis between humans and nature as a kind of utopia. Of the Volksbühne’s digital streams, it is the one that has the greatest rhythm and momentum thanks to skilful filming and editing. It’s also the only thing I really want to see live when the theaters reopen.
“Polis / Reset” is a step towards making the Volksbühne a place for committed theater that tackles burning problems. Castorf, the former artistic director, did not go into topicality. It’s hard to imagine that he would ever structure a season around environmental issues.
The recently deceased Dörr deserves credit for replenishing the acting ensemble. This diverse group of 17 people was consistently the most exciting thing about the new Volksbühne, and many of them, including Bauer and Loibl, are prominent in “Polis / Reset”.
It remains to be seen whether Pollesch will be able to lift the curse the theater deities have placed on the house when he arrives in the fall. He faces formidable artistic and administrative challenges. I pray that Pollesch, who like Castorf prefers intensive theatrical partnerships with a small group of employees, won’t grab the acting company when he takes over. That would be a real tragedy.