Stage Left

Along a Berlin River, Much Ado About Partisan Perspective

Theater amphitheater_start Source Monbijou-theater
Along the banks of Berlin's Spree River, an irreverent Shakespeare troupe has become a summer theater institution.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The Hexenkessel Theater in Berlin’s Monbijou Park, offering a steady diet of offbeat Shakespeare performances, has become a fixture for tourists and locals.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Berlin has Germany’s most vibrant theater and cultural life, with three operas and a range of small and large theaters.
    • The Hexenkessel Shakespeare performances take place in a park across the Spree River from the Bode art museum.
    • The German-language performances are performed by a troupe from the former East Germany.
  • Audio

    Audio

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A track leads to a garden behind a house in East Berlin. On a stage built out of wooden boards, actors in sneakers run through scenes from ‘As You Like It.’

It’s just a quick run-through and some take a break before the evening. Summer is a busy time for the East German theater troupe. They play two Shakespeare pieces each night, on a stage in a park.

For many summers, the actors went from rehearsal downtown to work on the stage, fixing the electrics and touching up the paint.

But a few summers ago, the city allowed them to build an amphitheater in the oldest part of Berlin.

It was an unexpected step closer to permanence for the family troupe that had been used to playing in different locations, struggling with uncertain financing and dealing with unpredictable German weather.

Their reworking of Shakespeare, with slapstick and quick repartee in an East German dialect has drawn fans young and old, tourists and regulars, year after year.

But their reworking of Shakespeare, with slapstick and repartee in an East German dialect – draws in fans young and old, tourists and regulars, year after year.

“I want to drag Shakespeare off the pedestal he never wanted to be on,” said Jan Zimmermann, the group’s artistic director.

He adapts the plays for his group of actors. “His plays are perfect for us. They’re comic, tragic and also really funny.”

Shakespeare was writing plays for a troupe he knew well for them to perform that night, Mr. Zimmermann said. “That’s how we work too.”

 

Shakespeare Midsummer 2 Source Monbijou-theater
A performance of Midsummer Night’s Dream by Berlin’s Hexenkessel theater troupe. Source: Monbijou Theater

 

The group has been playing Shakespeare this way for twenty years, an anniversary the group had not expected. “When I started out, if anyone had told me I would still be putting on these plays every night all this time, I would have said they were crazy,” he said.

Mr. Zimmermann had trained as a director but left the theater in 1989 when the wall fell. “I couldn’t see any other possibilities for it politically.”

He turned to alternative living, looking for utopia in a squat he shared with friends. Somebody had the idea of a theater for some summer fun.

“We put on shows every night behind the house in the garden,” he said. “People kept coming back for more. It was pretty funny to see them streaming into the backyard in their evening wear.”

The early years were hard but the actors were happy to play the comedies and the tragedies while enjoying the slapstick. It felt like a family. “I need for there to be a connection and a spark between the actors on and off the stage,” he said. “Basically, I need actors who are crazy in a good way.”

His ideals about sharing, working together and mutual support found an outlet in the troupe that he found he could cement together like a family. He has no time for the politicking and scheming that happens behind the scenes at other theaters. “What we share is a sense of support and togetherness,” he said.

“The fight to survive was a good reason to keep going.”

What counts for Mr. Zimmermann and his group is the audience.

“We’re a small group that has to keep people coming,” he said. “We don’t force the pieces into a modern form or impose a particular aesthetic vision.”

“What matters to us are the people, we want to keep surprising them,” he said. “I want to give people something to remember, something the cleaning lady who works for the Humboldt University can talk about with the professor the next day.”

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