There’s no reason to worry about the future of Berlin’s Volksbühne theatre, even though its long-time artistic director, Frank Castorf, will leave in 2017 and his successor Chris Dercon, currently the director of the Tate Modern Gallery in London, may be hatching plans to change things.
The influence of the Volksbühne, opened in 1914 as a theater for the common man and now famed for its experimental performances, has reached beyond Berlin’s city limits.
Over three consecutive nights in the Vienna Festival Week, Mr. Castorf’s style and ideas were visible in every performance. On the opening night, he produced Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Vienna’s critics were enthusiastic. On the second night, his former key actor Martin Wuttke played the lead in Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman. The critics went wild.
On night three, at the Burgtheater, Austria’s National Theatre, Carl Hegemann, Frank Castrof’s companion of many years, was the theatrical researcher, for Sophocles’ Antigone.
Years ago, Mr. Hegemann said that whatever the Volksbühne is doing today, other theaters are copying tomorrow. And of course, he’s right.
Mr. Castorf’s actors resemble comedians who ended up in a hell without punch lines.
After producing Crime and Punishment, The Gambler, Demons, and Humiliated and Insulted, Mr. Castorf has taken on Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamasov for Vienna – an undertaking described as a “work of the century.” No one would have expected to ever hear such strong words being used to describe Mr. Castorf. But now it’s happened – Mr. Castorf is a classic, and he likes being part of the canon of German-speaking theatre.
At seven hours long, The Brothers Karamasov, staged in Vienna’s former public coffin factory, is more a feat of endurance than a play. Dostoyevsky’s novel tells the story of four brothers mulling over the idea of killing their hated father. Only one of them commits the murder, and another one is sentenced for it. But the play tells the story from all of their points of view. The lack of restraint marks it as classic Castorf.
The world premiere in Vienna will be the only performance of this play for a while – two actors have been injured so severely that all other stagings in the Austrian capital have been cancelled. The next performance is planned for October in Berlin.
We hardly ever see the lead performers – Marc Hosemann (as Dmitri, the oldest brother); Alexander Scheer (Ivan); Daniel Zillmann (Alexei); Sophie Rois (Pavel Smerdyakov); Hendrik Arnst (the old Karamasov) – on stage. They are more often on a screen, and most of the time they are racing, chased by cameras, across the coffin factory or outside under the darkening sky.
Mr. Castorf’s actors resemble comedians who ended up in a hell without punch lines. They will rampage until a laughing God rescues them. They are the dancing dervishes of entertainment, clinging confidently to their roles till the bitter end.
The program claims the production is about the contrast between West and East, between liberalism and orthodoxy – but in reality it’s about the question: “who will save me?”
Shame resulting from their own absurdity is an important trait of Dostoyevsky’s characters. They suffer from the fear of God. But Mr. Castorf frees them from this shortcoming; his actors are holy hooligans in a monastery echoing with the roaring of its inmates.
The second Vienna performance also involves a great name. Young, highly talented Australian author-director Simon Stone has rewritten Henrik Ibsen’s play John Gabriel Borkman. He relocated the story from 1896 to today by arming Ibsen’s characters with modern-day cultural technology.
People who are seen meeting for the first time have actually known each other on Facebook, unhappy folks google themselves, lovers hope for Skype dates, and the fraudulent banker J. G. Borkman, who’s lived barricaded on the top floor of his house for years, is suffering from the fact that old photos of him being arrested are available online.
Mr. Stone clearly enjoys offloading all this modern nonsense on gloomy Mr. Ibsen. But the performance has a serious side. It tells the story of progress as one of growing convenience and inner impoverishment – not contact between two people, but contact between a person and their device. The device as the ultimate confidante.
Video: A taste of Carstorf: Scenes from The Hamletmachine at the Berlin Volksbühne.
Morality, society, conscience: These old terms, says Mr. Stone, are today embodied and cancelled by the data cloud that hovers over us all. His set designer, Katrin Brack, translates that into an invisible snow cloud relentlessly shedding fake snow onto the stage.
The characters rest under the artificial flakes like mythical beings. Whenever they have a line, they emerge and shake off the fake snow. The exuberance of such scenes is reminiscent of Mr. Castorf’s early, desecrating works, like his William Tell. The performance might turn into embarrassing nonsense if lead actors Martin Wuttke, Birgit Minichmayr and Caroline Peters didn’t pull it into the direction of great nonsense with so much force.
It’s rather calculated, a terror of effect, reminiscent of a performance of Sophocles at Berghain, Berlin’s most famous techno night club.
Ibsen’s tale is also the story of an erotic trap – a man between twin sisters. It’s a cast-iron triangle: Mr. Stone rattles it, pokes fun at the situation. John Borkman (Mr. Wuttke) marries Gunhild (Ms. Minichmayr), whom he doesn’t love, for financial reasons, losing Ella (Ms. Peters), whom he truly loves, as a result. Their unfulfilled lives keep the three trapped.
Ms. Minichmayr fills the role of Gunhild with a shrill voice. Caroline Peters, as the dying foster mother of Mr. Borkman’s son Erhart, plays the polar opposite of her appearance – weakness and dwindling beauty – in a graceful way that hints at a strong will.
And Mr. Wuttke is stomping through the snow like a warlord in winter, striving for steadfastness, blinking snowflakes away, a being somewhere between Louis de Funès and Napoleon Bonaparte.
There’s not much to say about Carl Hegemann’s Antigone. Despite being Mr. Castorf’s former dramaturge and foreign minister, it didn’t show. Jette Steckel stages the play, and Joachim Meyerhoff plays Kreon.
The result is a performance entirely reliant on effects, bare any of the Volksbühne madness. It’s rather calculated, a terror of effect, reminiscent of a performance of Sophocles at Berghain, Berlin’s most famous techno night club.
The inexorability of the justice that Kreon dispenses is embodied by 80 scorching spotlights, pointed at the auditorium like lamps during an interrogation. A high-voltage tragedy without much thought. The blind seer Tiresias sings a song by Leonard Cohen: I’ve seen the future, baby; it is murder.
We don’t think so. The future is Castorf.
This article originally appeared in the newspaper Die Zeit. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org