Tag Archives: Berlin


at Summerhall, Tuesday 6th August 2013

*Originally written for A Younger Theatre*

To avoid confusion, Bonanza isn’t really a piece of theatre. It involved no live performers, and is more a documentary film presented in an experimental way. But it’s brilliant all the same. Important to clarify that first, just so no one is disappointed.

Near to the ground in the Main Hall in Summerhall, five screens line up in a row, like a split widescreen. Above, a town made out of plastic, spanning the stage, hangs from the ceiling, like a floating model village. The film then begins, switching focus between each screen but continuing different shots on others, allowing our eyes to flit between to see what’s going on elsewhere in this town. Continue reading “Bonanza”


“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by William Shakespeare

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.


music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb and book by Joe Masteroff

at Warwick Arts Centre, Thursday 2nd June 2011

The world is a miserable place. Most of us with an ounce of wisdom can agree on that. But the creators of so many musicals seem to dodge away from difficult subjects, preferring to take the easy way out by showing a happy-clappy version of the world in which everyone lives happily ever after. Callum Runciman and Lilith Brewer’s production of Cabaret could not be further from this trend, portraying a gloriously pessimistic view of humanity during its darkest hour which at once provokes and delights.

We are in – unsurprisingly – a cabaret club in 1930s Berlin, and the American writer Clifford Bradshaw turns up hoping to find inspiration for a new novel. He meets and falls in love with the British Sally Bowles, and they live together in a boarding house presided over Fraulein Schneider, who is in turn in love with the Jewish Herr Schultz. As the various couples face troubles of their own, the impending Nazi takeover becomes more obvious. The whole enterprise is overseen by the omnipresent Emcee, here shown to be just as much a creator as a commentator on the events of the story.

The most striking aspect of this production is its gorgeous aesthetic. The film-noir inspired design is juxtaposed with the red curtain and yellow lights, and forces the Nazi Swastikas to stand out. The colour of Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz’ relationship is emphasised, they being the only ones to dress in colour.

This production is both sexy and sensitive. Musical numbers such as ‘Two Ladies’ are simply hilarious, and Shultz’ optimistic faith in humanity is one of the few redeeming features of this society. The bold, brash choices made at the closing of the first and second acts send shivers down the spine. We are sat in Cabaret-style set-up, forcing us to consider what we take as truth and what is illusion.

Each and every performer has utter conviction in their roles; even the chorus of Kit Kat boys and girls are utilised well. Stewart Clarke’s portrayal of the right-wing Ernst Ludwig is just enough of a caricature to remain funny, but still has enough humanity for us to follow his path. Edward Davis and Claire Furner as Schultz and Schneider both give perfectly nuanced performances, and as the relatively bland Bradshaw, Alastair Hill injects some genuine emotion. Tom Syms as the androgynous Emcee is nothing but class; at one point he is a droll narrator, and when in drag looks like a cross between Marilyns Manson and Monroe. The show is pretty much stolen, however, by Charlotte Cowley’s portrayal of Sally Bowles, with stiff upper lip and conserved emotions. When she sings the title number ‘Cabaret’, she proves herself to be an upcoming star of the stage.

This production of Cabaret is one of the best musicals I have ever seen. The theatricality of the sexual Kit Kat Club is juxtaposed carefully with the raw emotion in the more private scenes. With wonderfully original choreography by Katie Wignall and blinding lighting by Sam Daughty, the musical numbers don’t detract from but add to the action, and Kate Meadows’ musical direction adds another layer of emotion to the production. Cabaret makes some bold moves, and Runciman and Brewer’s direction draws out some of the key themes in the narrative. The fact we are sat mere metres away from the action adds to the drama, and for the two and a half hours we spend in the space, this is a far better alternative to sitting alone in our room.

“Der Parasit, oder die Kunst, sein Glück zu machen” by Friedrich Schiller

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.