First lesson learned: there is no such thing as a “Berlin theatre,” let alone a “Berlin audience.” The Deutsche Theater is a very different space than the Volksbuehne. The latter is slightly run down, dominated by a 1950s kind of charm, but feels very open — in the lobby and in the auditorium. The former is flashier, both in the front-of-house areas and in the auditorium: all glass and white and gold and red. The DT’s stage isn’t quite as majestically vast as the Volksbuehne, but even so, the space doesn’t feel quite as intimate. And the audience is very different, or at least was very different this week: the Volksbuehne crowd was mixed, with lots of young people and lots of hipsters of all ages, and relatively raucous, ready to respond to what they saw. The DT audience was significantly older and significantly more dressed-up — it felt and looked rather like a London West End crowd. It was also much more muted in its reactions, though their applause was no less enthusiastic and extended than yesterday’s. But the relative silence during the show was a bit unsettling: there is an extremely funny (if painful) and near-endless slow-motion slapstick bit in this production that had me giggling almost uncontrollably, but I was surrounded by people watching quietly.

What was on stage, though, was in many ways no less interesting, challenging, and exciting than what the Volksbuehne had to offer.

Ödön von Horvath’s 1931 Stories from the Vienna Woods is a pretty relentlessly brutal play. I must confess that I had not read it until this morning (German modern classics aren’t exactly in my academic wheelhouse!), but having just gone through the play gave me the advantage of having a fairly good idea of how much of the text had made it into the show: it was a rather lightly cut version. That was the first surprise. Michael Thalheimer, the director, is well known for his extremely compressed versions of old plays, for textual work that aims to boil down the text to an essence of sorts. Some of that happened here, but no more than one might expect in any production. And while both the Thalheimer shows I had seen before (Emilia Galotti and The Rats) not only eschewed any hint of psychological realism in their characterization, but also allowed for only very limited interactions between characters that owed anything to naturalism, the same wasn’t really true of this performance. Characterization remained, for the most part, quite abstract, especially vocally — with the exception of the female lead, Marianne (a heartbreaking Katrin Wichmann), none of the other actors ever attempted to sound as if their lines weren’t scripted. But whereas in the other Thalheimer shows I know, lines are delivered mostly at breakneck pace (and physical actions are often separated sharply from speech), here the pace was rather more relaxed. Wichmann even had multiple moments where she seemed to inhabit the text with more abandon than the rest of the cast.

As a take on the play, this makes sense, as Marianne is trying to abandon the path her father has plotted for her, is trying to get away from her neighbourhood of maliciously gossiping store owners, inane retirees, and menacing butchers — and from her fiancee, her childhood friend Oskar, the well-to-do owner of the butcher shop. Over the course of the evening, all of these other characters start wearing flat cardboard masks with crudely drawn faces on them; only Marianne’s face remains visible until the last moments of the play, when Oskar gets to marry her after all, places a mask on her face, and inserts her into a line-up of indistinguishably masked, slumped or crooked bodies. But even before the masks first start to appear there is a striking tonal difference between Wichmann and the other actors, a division between the speakers of lines and the one voice trying to break free of those lines.




Reading other reviews of the show has been a fascinating experience: there seems fairly broad consensus that the production shows an equal amount of empathy towards all the figures, not painting any of them as stereotypically or straightforwardly despicable. I suppose that’s somewhat true to my sense of the show, but only up to a point. Marianne, both technically and visually, seemed to be singled out as different — not necessarily less culpable than anyone else, not less morally questionable, but perhaps more pure in her yearning for another life, more achingly naive in her hope, more simple-minded and thus more moving in her love. (One lighting cue I loved really emphasized this separation: Marianne is confessing, alone, with the stage in darkness except for a circle of light just in front of her; she finishes her list of sins and an imperfectly delivered Our Father; and the lights come up on the rest of the cast assembled on and around a long table all the way upstage — the space, which just now had been quite flat, quite two-dimensional suddenly appears almost immeasurably deep, with a gulf of darkness between Marianne and the rest.)

The plot of Horvath’s play is too complicated to summarize here, but one of its key plot points is a confrontation between Marianne and her father, who disowns her after she runs away with Alfred, a “nothing” who gets her pregnant and leaves her destitute, forcing her to start working as a nightclub dancer. Eventually, her father sees her perform as a nude act (a scene that also triggers a loud hysterical reaction by the gossipy shop keeper). On paper, it’s a fairly squalid scene. On stage, it becomes a terrifyingly beautiful moment. Thalheimer’s set is non-existent: just a bare stage with a bunch of chairs and a few tables all the way upstage, where the actors sit throughout the show, moving forward when they enter a scene. But when Marianne appears on the nightclub stage, a dense confetti rain starts falling, turning the scene into a bizarre colourful and shiny snowstorm through which her figure, wearing only a bra and a very wide skirt wanders until she reaches centre stage, where she signs a popular song and strips down to her waist. The moment lasts forever; the confetti keeps falling for an improbably long time; the shop keeper’s hysterical fit goes on and on, as she is writhing on the confetti-covered floor (not quite making snow angels, but almost); Marianne keeps standing there, a little absurd in her skirt, very moving and vulnerable in her nakedness. It’s a very long and complicated moment, but it’s not as horrifying as it reads to me in Horvath’s text. The contrast between the bare stage before and the beauty of the nightclub scene almost seemed to suggest that in her very destitution and despair, even as she has to sell her body to feed herself, Marianne has achieved a kind of autonomy to which she can only hold on for a few moments longer (she winds up in jail on false charges right after this), and for which she will be swiftly punished with marriage to Oskar and a reintegration into her place in society.

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One more point about timing. Thalheimer has always been a master not simply of compression and speed, but of switching registers radically, from extremely fast to near-catatonic. So here. He dwells on some moments at absolutely extraordinary length. The opening of the show is one of them, and perhaps the most remarkable instance. Music begins: Strauss’s waltz from which the play takes its title. We might expect the house lights to fade, but the opposite happens: the DT’s enormous chandelier gets brighter and brighter, all the sconces lighting the balconies and boxes are gradually cranked up to a painful brightness — the music swells and gets louder and louder — but the stage remains in near-darkness, only a few shapes of objects and bodies gradually emerging as the intense light from the auditorium reaches beyond the proscenium. This goes on for a good five minutes, and then suddenly, at the flick of a switch, the music stops, we’re in the dark, and the stage is cast in a clinically cold white light. The point here may in fact be quite simple: it may just be that Thalheimer is putting us on stage, and on notice, reminding us that we shouldn’t feel entitled or comfortable enough to judge any of the characters we’re about to encounter, that we are in the lights, at least potentially, just as much as the actors (if not more so). But the sheer theatricality of the moment, the multitude of audience reactions, the physical and aural impact of the scene, went well beyond that. The second seemingly endless moment before Marianne’s confetti storm was the hilarious, and quite sad, slapstick bit at which I couldn’t quite laugh out loud: Oskar’s protracted attempt to extract a gift-wrapped box of candy from his suit pocket — candy greedily gobbled up by Marianne’s dad and Oskar himself, but spurned by her, which leads to a second, even more extended moment when Oskar tries to put the lid back on the box and eventually winds up slowly crushing it into a ribbon-choked cardboard sausage. Again, this went on for at least five minutes, only accompanied by the sound of creaking cardboard and the occasional grunt. And it was mesmerizing, and hysterical, and devastating. And totally, unrestrainedly, committedly and irreducibly theatrical.

One Response to Berlin, Day 2: Geschichten aus dem Wiener Wald (Horvath/Thalheimer), Deutsches Theater

  1. Kelly Nestruck says:

    Was just thinking about this production again today and yours is one of the few English reviews of it… You missed my favourite part of the scene where Marianne is discovered in the nightclub – which is that her father, who has been carrying around balloons the entire play, lets them go as he is shocked out of his grief for his dead wife by the sight of his daughter. They float up into the flies – and that’s when the confetti falls. So beautiful and an image that’s still haunting me.

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