at the Deutsches Theater, Berlin, Saturday 31st March 2012
German translation by Frank Günther
When we watch plays in translation in the UK , it’s easy to forget that what we’re hearing could be very different in tone and style to the writer’s original intentions. Watching a well-known play in a foreign language highlights this fact, especially when said play takes the liberty of adding in new scenes to highlight a point. Andreas Kriegenburg’s production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (‘Ein Sommernachtstraum’) begins with an entirely original scene which sees the rude mechanicals on their lunch break discussing dream theory according to Sigmund Freud and Walter Benjamin. Immediately, we reconsider our opinion not only of these players but of the entire play. The tension between the two theories, between visual and aural, between instinctive and reasoned, underlines every moment of the following 180 minutes.
This is a production set entirely in a dream world, where nothing makes complete sense. The world on stage is experienced just like the world of sleep, featuring spirits with grass for heads or well-dressed individuals dancing. Puck and Oberon, here portrayed as twins, are the masters of this universe, and seem to control every moment of the Athenians’ lives. Their brotherly feud is the cause of this disruption, permeating its way into the forest and the city. Played by Daniel Hoevels and Ole Lagerpusch respectively, the energy harnessed from their spat drives the play and wreaks havoc.
They are omnipresent, especially during the later fight scene between the lovers, which is choreographed carefully to become ethereal. Berd Moss and Jörg Pose as Lysander and Demetrius are powerless compared to the might of the fairies and seem even more pathetic in the company of Natali Seelig and Judith Hofmann as Hermia and Helena, who are astonishingly passionate and seem to incur the strength of genuine gods in order to reach the height of emotion in this scene alone.
As the play ends with Thisbe’s death, before comments from Theseus, the rude mechanicals serve as an entirely separate storyline. We watch as they descend from being impressive, intellectual debaters at the beginning to useless, embarrassing luvvies at the close of the play. Perhaps, then, they are the main victims of Oberon’s magic. Markwart Müller-Elmau’s Bottom is the strongest of the five (Starveling has been cut), for the other men (played by women in mustaches with no pretence at deluding us of their actual gender) sometimes get lost in self-indulgence.
But for all his comments on the text and the nature of dreams, Kriegenburg is concerned mainly with how this production looks. It is visually stunning, and evokes emotions I had no idea design alone was able to engender. Kriegenburg’s set is able to transform itself and be transformed; two glass-bricked walls stand in parallel on either side of a revolve and a central wall is able to be wheeled along the length of the corridor between, creating vast spaces and small rooms. Light beams through the glass, placing shapes daintily on the floor as the set moves. A copper colour-scheme is complemented by forest greens and soft pinks; we are watching our dreams enacted on stage.
The actors move in a way which is effortless and strays into the realms of dance. At one point, Oberon ‘walks’ along the back wall as it journeys towards the audience, and at another Puck leaps around as if on strings. The beguiling movement alone is enough to portray the relevent emotions, and it is improved only by a ghostly cinematic soundtrack which transports us to a sleepy realm.
It is a shame there isn’t such an unabashed focus on visual stimulation in the English mainstream, for our obsession with the spoken word often forces us to forget the nature of theatre as a medium which is watched as well as listened. The Deutsches Theater here shows the power of the ensemble (the less said about the frankly shambolic curtain call the better) to create a theatrical experience which draws on impulse and intellect in equal measure – this production has been playing in repertoire since September 2010 – and we need to beg for a similar system somewhere in the UK which isn’t just the half-baked version of Boyd.