Ah, yes. After seven days of gushing posts, I’ve come back down to earth.

This is not all bad news. The first not-so-exciting show was a contemporary play, which I had picked specifically as a control sample. Since this entire theatre marathon is part of my nascent research project on Anglophone and Germanophone stagings of the classics (a category I’m reluctantly opening up to “plays written by now-dead authors, normally before World War II”), I wanted to get a sense of just how different things are when it comes to producing recently written works by living dramatists. And while a sample size of one is obviously not quite good enough, I learned some things the other day, when I went to see the Deutsche Theater’s frankly disappointing production of Simon Stephens’ Wastwater. (Perhaps I ought to rephrase that: the Deutsche Theater’s production of Simon Stephens’ disappointing Wastwater. I don’t think either sentence is quite true without the other.) Primarily, the experience has strengthened my sense that things get thrilling when older material and contemporary theatre artists get to clash.

The second disappointment was a bit sadder, as it was an instance of what happens when older materials and contemporary theatre artists just sort of muddle along. I thought I’d see Claus Peymann’s new production of Schiller’s Kabale und Liebe at the Berliner Ensemble despite the very negative reviews it’s received, imagining that what struck German critics as trite and old hat would perhaps look innovative and exciting to my eyes, used as they are to a very different aesthetic these days. That turned out to be false hope. But at least I’ve now been to the Berliner Ensemble: one more box ticked.

First, then, Wastwater. I’d seen half the cast the previous night in Oedipus Stadt, where they all impressed me (yes, that’s how actors in these German ensembles work: one role one night, another the next. Some of them are in seven concurrently running plays). Susanne Wolff inspired an all-out rave. In Stephens’ play: not so much. That in itself was interesting to me. It would be easy to claim they had an off night; it would be more difficult to claim their performance in the new piece wasn’t as “good,” since I’m not sure what that would mean. After thinking about the problem for the past two days, I’ve now convinced myself that part of the issue is presence. Actors like Wolff (and some of her fellow cast members) are simply too much there to function well in the small-scale, realist, contemporary, really quite straightforward drama Stephens delivers here. (Sure, she plays a cop who’s meeting her lover in a hotel room and proceeds to reveal her past as a heroin addict and a porn actress. Not exactly everyday stuff, you might say. But actually, it kind of is. Divorced from the kind of sentimental attachment slice-of-life journalism could wring from this scenario and in the absence of any kind of political discourse — which would probably have been boring, too — all that’s left is a paint-by-numbers modern character, complete with barely hidden biographical abysses to discover. Not larger than life, just an assortment of the sadnesses of modern existence. Or so one hears.)

I learned some things. Even a director as un-Regietheater as Ulrich Matthes appears to be (he’s primarily known as an actor; I believe this is only his second directing gig, and the previous one was ten years ago) obviously has no problem disregarding the author’s ideas of what the play is supposed to look like on stage. Wastwater is a triptych of very loosely connected one-act plays; each is set in a specific, clearly defined space. “Two,” for instance, takes place in “A room at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, Heathrow Airport. It’s a modern, rather beautiful room. It has a large bed. There is a large, plasma-screen television. A large screen for a computer. A digital radio. A large window behind beautiful curtains. It’s raining heavily outside. The rain stops.” Literally not one of those descriptions or directions made it into the DT production, where the abstract, black set looks more or less the same for all three scenes, though the grid of neon tubes that organizes the space lights up in different formations and with different effects as needed (now they’re a runway, now a cell).

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For your reference, here’s what that scene looked like at the Royal Court in London two years ago:

And whereas Stephens runs the three segments one after the other without ever putting all six characters on stage at the same time, Matthes starts the play with all of them sharing the same space, muttering key lines, before they clear the stage for the first scene. In general, there’s also a more theatrical use of space than one might see in a standard English production: the actors range in ways that have more to do with expressing relationships or giving the specific energy between characters a spatial form than with any effort at realism. But in all these efforts, they’re doing battle with the text, and ultimately, the text wins. Which left me feeling that I’d rather see this on film or on TV, played by specialists in psychological realism. The slight against that sort of stage acting here is that it’s “Fernsehspiel:” earnest, serious TV drama — but so, frankly, is Stephens’ piece. Sure, there’s room for playfulness, but that potential is quite strictly circumscribed: that ex-junkie ex-pornstar cop can be a hysteric, she can be unhinged, but the point is that she’s an ex-junkie ex-pornstar cop, not a figure played by an actor. Perhaps Thomas Ostermeier could have done something vaguely interesting with this material, as he’s the only director I’ve encountered here so far who’s interested in that approach. But it was a bit depressing to watch these DT actors shrunk to size, given how much they impressed me with their ability to be both characters and actors on stage in the two previous productions I saw them in earlier this week, and given how much I admired them for their ability to play (I also suspect that they are perhaps not as used to, not as interested in “just being”). It felt like a waste of talent.

The entire production, as a consequence, seemed incomplete. The set did not match the text’s realist logic; the actors seemed to be doing the kind of work that left half their resources underused; and the play itself had none of the daring, the strangeness, or the wilfulness I’ve so enjoyed in all the other productions I’ve seen here. If I had seen this England, I would likely have admired the actors’ craft; I doubt the play would have impressed me much more there either. But at least it wouldn’t have felt like a waste: there, it would have found actors who, by and large, are very good at this kind of work, and whose expertise finds greatest and most awe-inspiring expression in this kind of work (which is why so many of them are as good on film as on stage; and it’s surely no coincidence that the Royal Court production looks like it’s a film). Here, it seemed like I was watching great artists practice someone else’s craft, abandoning the very things that made them great in the process.

The director Jorinde Droese told me the other day that she is always looking for plays that give her room for distortions, for skewing things, for creating (now in my words) powerful and provocative mismatches between representation and reality. I don’t think Stephens’ play has much tolerance for skewing: twist that thing too much and it’ll just snap. But skewing is what German theatre, and German stage actors, do best — it’s what they excel at in an almost unique way. In all its various forms, skewing is, to my mind, at the heart of what makes theatre so interesting, so challenging, so engaging, and so unpredictable in this country. Wastwater is just too relentlessly straight a play, populated by off-kilter characters but built with no allowance for structural or mimetic crookedness, to bring out what’s best about German theatre.

Now, Peymann. There’s plenty of strained skewing and distorting going on in his production of Kabale und Liebe, to be sure. And none of it worked, because none of it felt — to me at least — serious. But now I’ve gone on for long enough, and Peymann will have to wait.

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