Sing, o muses of the house of unceasing calamities!
Over the past three years, the drama behind the scenes at the Volksbhne in Berlin has surpassed any onstage. To say that the company has struggled would be putting it mildly: Depending on your point of view, the goings-on have increasingly resembled either a Greek tragedy or a satyr play.
Since 2017, dysfunction if not outright misfortune has dogged the venerable theater, which, like most in Berlin, is publicly run. It began when the minister of culture at the time fired the longtime artistic director Frank Castorf, who had led the house for 25 years and was known to rule with an iron fist. Berlin politicians passed the torch to Chris Dercon, a former director of the Tate Modern in London.
Berliners vehemently objected; the theater was briefly occupied by protesters. Feces were left in front of Dercons office. He quit only months in and was replaced by Klaus Drr, who was supposed to fill the vacancy until Ren Pollesch, one of Germanys leading dramatists and a veteran of Castorfs Volksbhne, took over as artistic director in 2021.
Last week, Drr abruptly resigned over sexual harassment allegations. Yet in the midst of a trying season for theaters worldwide, the Volksbhne has plowed ahead with an ambitious series of premieres inspired by ancient Greek drama and myth called Polis/Reset.
Although the cycle examines the relevance of its classical sources from the contemporary perspective of our worlds environmental and economic ills, the themes of unappeased gods, inescapable fates and tragic flaws seem oddly appropriate to the Volksbhne in light of its long-running bad luck.
Half of the eight productions planned for Polis/Reset are streaming on the Volksbhnes website. The shows are a diverse crop, but they all confront, to varying degrees, the existential issues facing humanity in the Anthropocene, the era in which humans are the dominant influence on the natural world.
Oedipus is the last king of the Anthropocene. This is our last winter. No one will escape this catastrophe, an actor intones early in Anthropos, Tyrant (Oedipus), an associative and sometimes pedantic stage essay by the writer-director Alexander Eisenach. Of the productions in the Volksbhnes series, this one, loosely based on Sophocles Theban Plays, most directly addresses environmental and economic devastation. In the middle of the performance, the marine biologist and climate expert Antje Boetius delivers a lecture on the Anthropocene that is informative, though dry.
I enjoyed some of the snappier slogans, such as Tragedy has become the language of science and Awaking the wrath of the gods is not a metaphor. Its very real. But it is possible to agree while still feeling that the show is rough around the edges.
Since it couldnt be shown in front of a live audience, the theater presented it as a livestream in 360 degrees: It was filmed with an omnidirectional camera, and viewers at home were able to control their perspective of the stage. The effect was kind of cool, although it seemed more like an interesting experiment with technology than a full-fledged production. My internet connection was too weak to view it as intended, in razor-sharp 4K.
Oedipus and the other rulers of the ancient world were judged by their ability to keep nature in balance and the deities happy. The director Lucia Bihler put an environmentally conscious spin on the divine wrath in Iphigenia. Sad and Horny in Taurerland, a reworking of Euripides two Iphigenia plays that is peppered with cheeky dialogue 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 to gain favorable winds for sailing. Bihlers staging suggests environmental parallels: with the deities refusal to bestow natures fortune on humanity and with the notion of mortgaging the future that child sacrifice represents. In the evenings irreverent second half, Iphigenia (the young American-born actress Vanessa Loibl) is whisked away to the island of Tauris, where she works in a call center alongside a vulgar, funny gang of women who put up with verbal abuse from prank callers.
Iphigenias sacrifice is the preamble to The Oresteia, Aeschylus tragic trilogy about Agamemnons family. The young German director Pinar Karabulut has tackled Eugene ONeills 1931 play cycle, Mourning Becomes Electra, which transposes the action of The Oresteia from ancient Argos to New England shortly after the Civil War. Although there is much to admire in Karabuluts muscular production, it turns ONeills tragic cycle into a dreary and sordid soap opera.
On the plus side, the production looks great: sleek and stylish, with colorful costumes and props dominated by reds and blues. The atmosphere of surreal domestic horror is heightened by visual allusions to David Lynchs Blue Velvet and Roman Polanskis Rosemarys Baby. Those scenes are effectively unsettling, but they also seem irrelevant. Another element that doesnt quite work is a bracing monologue about race delivered by Malick Bauer, the only Black actor in the companys performing ensemble. Written by a dramaturge, Laura Dabelstein, the soliloquy is a very politically incorrect disquisition about prejudice in Germany, designed to shake the audience up, among other ways, with the repeated use of the N-word. Its a powerful text and Bauer delivers it with conviction, but it feels like a forced bid for timeliness.
ONeills play stands in a long line of works refashioned from Greek sources. One of the earliest is the Roman poet Ovids Metamorphoses, written in A.D. 8 and comprising roughly 250 myths. In this epic poem, women turn into trees and birds, drowned men become flowers, and gods transform themselves into animals.
Like Iphigenia, Claudia Bauers Metamorphoses [overcoming mankind] doesnt strain for relevance. Its an arresting production that combines surreal pantomime and song. For the majority of the performance, the actors wear blank masks. They become mythical characters through movement accompanied by live music (featuring the accordion virtuoso Valentin Butt) and voice-over narration delivered by actors whose faces are projected above the stage.
Metamorphoses proposes the transformative world of myth as an alternative to the Anthropocene. Even though there is much violence in Ovid, including cannibalism and rape, the production holds up the enchanted symbiosis between man and nature as a sort of utopia. Of the Volksbhnes digital streams, its the one with the most rhythm and verve, thanks to skillful filming and editing. Its also the only one Im dying to see live once theaters reopen.
Polis/Reset is a step toward making the Volksbhne a place for engag theater that tackles burning issues. Castorf, the former artistic director, didnt go in for topicality. Its hard to imagine him ever structuring a season around environmental themes.
The recently departed Drr deserves credit for replenishing the acting ensemble. This versatile group of 17 has been the most consistently exciting thing about the new Volksbhne, 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 placed on the house by the theatrical deities when he arrives in the fall. He faces formidable artistic and managerial challenges. I pray that Pollesch, who, like Castorf, favors intense theatrical partnerships with a small group of collaborators, doesnt send the acting ensemble packing when he takes over. That would be a real tragedy.
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