Hello to Berlin
Along with Sir David Hare and other theatre groupies, I've been to Berlin. It's a good place for theatre right now - Thomas Ostermeir's chillingly revelatory Hedda Gabler has toured internationally (his Ibsen explorations continue with what sounds like a mighty John Gabriel Borkman).
But I was visiting what was for decades the archetypal German company - the Berliner Ensemble. On the river, its distinctive logo (designed by Brecht acolyte Peter Pabst, himself an inspired director at the Ensemble) revolves in neon at the top of the building. Inside the theatre, the best graphic design I've seen in ages (I came away with whole handfuls of leaflets, and was distressed to discover I hadn't noticed that old programmes were on sale at bargain prices).
The plan: (a) catch a couple of much-talked-about productions and (b) interview artistic director Claus Peymann. (a) was spiffy, (b) not so much - the interview was repeatedly postponed. Which is a shame, because the Ensemble is one of the world's great companies, and I'd like to have known more.
For example: what difference does it make to have actors spend their careers in a single company? We felt that we could spot the deeply embedded nature of the performances, but were we being idealistic? And just how much does a theatre's atmosphere shape its artistic direction?
I was expecting a big, brutalist building - a Communist behemoth pounding out epic plays before the wall came down. But the theatre is intimate and ornate. It's peculiar to imagine that this is the space in which Brecht's questing theatre reached its final flowering, behind the gilt-swirled proscenium with its pleasantly zaftig figurehead.
The size also made sense of the plays: this is an actor's theatre - its dimensions, oddly, not unlike London's Royal Court. The stage space is high, but not deep - there's room for scenic startle, but it also allows an actor to command the bare space, address the audience intimately (just as Claire Higgins did at the Court last night, astonishing in Wallace Shawn's balefully freewheeling monologue The Fever). How does Brecht come over in such a space, Herr Peymann? Does he seem more pointed, less polemical? If you happen to be reading, let me know.
When the Ensemble first visited London, in 1954, they were perceived as revolutionary - an epic theatre with a purpose, in which personality was subsumed into function, and music, design and lighting were all forged together like steel. Kenneth Tynan reported a socialite at Mother Courage sighing, 'I was bored to death.' 'Bored to life would have been apter,' he wrote. In an age of frequent touring, the impact might not now be so great. But, except for Peymann's production of Richard II in the RSC's Complete Works festival in 2006, they haven't been to Britain for ages: why not? Do they not want to come, or do we not want them?
Later this week, hold onto your hats for reports on the outstanding new show by Robert Wilson (united at last with Shakespeare, Rufus Wainwright and a man dressed as Elizabeth II) and Spring Awakening - (not, thank the lord) the Musical.
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