at the Berliner Ensemble, Tuesday 6th July 2010
Berlin really is a city of opposites. East merges into West, present into past and rich into poor. Nowhere is this more obvious than at the Berliner Ensemble, the infamous theatre company which was set up by Bertolt Brecht and some of his contemporaries. The simple neo-Baroque facade is topped off with a flourescent “Berliner Ensemble” sign and inside the elegant auditorium counters the sleek cleanliness of the stage itself. An eagle, the symbol of the Nazi party, is crossed out angrily with a red cross.
It is strange that in the United Kingdom, many of the theories which Brecht considered are still deemed to be avant-garde by a large proportion of the theatre going population. During my recent visit to the Berliner Ensemble to see Schiller’s “Der Parasit, oder die Kunst, sein Glück zu machen” (The Parasite, or the art of making one’s fortune), I experienced a form of theatre which needs to be embraced here in the UK.
My German is very limited, but one oft-cited technique of Brecht’s, ‘gestus’, allows us to understand what was happening simply because of the exaggerated expressions of the actors and simplified performances. Each actor wears a costume which makes their arms and legs look shorter than they should be, thus disproportionately enlarging the size of their heads and so drawing focus to facial expression.
A problem when studying the theories of Brecht’s has always been the translation of the term “Verfremdungseffekt”. Often translated into ‘alienation effect’ or even ‘estrangement effect’, there is really no direct translation into English. The only way to understand this phrase is to watch a play produced by Brecht’s theatre company. It is difficult to put into words, but we are at once distanced and drawn in, made to think and made to feel. Naturally, the language barrier helps to distance more whilst performance techniques convey human emotion.
The play itself is concerned with the themes of hypocrisy and self-preservation, whether this be in love or politics. These are carried mainly by the subaltern Selicour, played by Thomas Wittmann, who uses various aspects of his personality (played by six other actors) to manipulate those around him. It is not simply he who looks bad trying to put a foot on the ladder, however, for we also see the stupidity of those who fall for his tricks, specifically the minister himself, Narbonne (Norbert Stöß), whose world crumbles arround him, both literally and metaphorically. The set mirrors this state of affairs, walled like a padded cell and ascending to the top in the form of a staircase, whilst allowing a multitude of exits and entrances.
The production is beautifully choreographed, running like clockwork from beginning to end and incorporating some wonderful set pieces. At one point, Karl (the minister’s son, played by Dejan Bućin), falls from the heights of the on-stage staircase and tumbles down in slow motion, his real legs and arms visible but the focus being centred on the limbs of the ‘puppet’. When he hits the ground, two teeth are spat out accompanied by two notes on the xylophone. Music and sound feature heavily throughout, and in the duration we hear everything from a strained winch to a squeaky duck.
The Berliner Ensemble in Der Parasit have shown how theatre should be made. It should not directly mirror reality but create a distorted image in which we see our own faults. In an age where television and film are so popular, theatre must fill the void which does not necessarily ask for complete reality. We should be made to think and be challenged by theatre, which is certainly what the Berliner Ensemble did here. Whether you agree with this or not, one thing is for certain. I’ll be back.