German stagings of classics are often exciting because they draw attention to the challenges as well as the necessity of playing works of the past — they find an enormous source of energy in the friction between old and new rather than papering over the distance between text and performance with the tired blend of visual historicism and vague philosophical universalism that one so often gets in the English speaking theatre. The Berliner Ensemble, though, is different — or so says its artistic director Claus Peymann. As far as he is concerned the BE still does the classics as they are “supposed” to be done, in a spirit of faithfulness to the text, insisting on clarity of enunciation, and informed by a “proximity to the poetic language” of drama (that’s from their website).
If you think you can predict what this looks like in practice, think again. Here’s the set in the play’s final scene:
Even productions marketed in Berlin as faithful, true to the text, or conservative in style (as Peymann has said of his own work recently) probably look deconstructed and experimental to most eyes used to the majority of Anglophone classical work. And it’s not just this show’s scenography. Costumes, too, are informed by a heavily symbolic aesthetic that has little to do with Schiller directly (although it appears designed to reinforce Schiller’s points): there is a fairly obvious colour scheme, outfits look vaguely historical but are skewed into exaggerated theatrical registers of shape, material, and cut; the highest-ranking, most menacing character of the play, President von Walter, wears a tall orange wig and walks on stilts inside comically outsized trousers; his scheming sidekick Wurm is dressed to look impossibly lanky and slithery (including a stocking scull cap); and so on. All larger props hang visibly suspended above the stage and fly down when needed (this includes a baby grand piano). When Ferdinand, von Walter’s son and one half of the ill-fated romantic couple at the heart of the play, smashes a violin in a fit of passion (a famously difficult histrionic moment), the instrument and a bow appear from above right in front of Ferdinand, who plucks them off their wires before playing and destroying both. The smashing of the instrument itself is played without any palpable sense of irony, but the way the prop shows up from on high in an ostentatiously theatrical gesture does draw attention to just how stagey a moment this is. In many ways, then, Peymann’s production seems not so different than many of the other shows I’ve written about in its insistence on drawing attention to itself, on signalling that Schiller is being staged in a very particular, quite specific, way here (and now).
So far, so good — or at least, so potentially interesting. The problem is that Peymann then doesn’t follow through with that apparent project. Whereas elsewhere, the self-referential impulse is accompanied by a focus on playfulness, so that the process of acting itself in all its variety, its malleability, its liveness, becomes part of the staging, here, the actors act their parts as if we weren’t there. The consequences of this approach were illustrated in painful fashion when I saw the show. In one of the most emotionally charged scenes in the play, an intense encounter between Ferdinand and Luise (his lover and ultimately his victim), a cellphone went off in the proscenium boxes. Then it happened again. Then it played another sound, louder than the ring-tone and more disruptive still. I have no doubt that at the Gorki Theater, at the Volksbuehne, or in at least some of the DT shows I’ve seen this week, the actors would have responded in some fashion (even at the Schaubuehne they probably would have). They would have had to: since the predominant imperative on most Berlin stages seems to be actorly openness, an alertness to everything that is going on around you, a readiness to respond, not responding to a ringing phone would suggest that you’re not actually playing — but that you’re merely pretending to be responsive. And that’s precisely what happened at the Berliner Ensemble. The audience was getting restless, people started to grumble and to giggle, while on stage, Ferdinand and Luise emoted on as if nothing had happened, as if there were no audience there, as if they were real people in a real parlour, not figures in a theatre. In other words, all the distortions and distancing gestures of the set and the costumes were revealed at that moment to be mere window dressing, a playful ornament on a production that at heart rested on very old-fashioned representational principles. (I imagine Michael Thalheimer’s actors would not have responded either, but then his theatre is somewhat sui generis — his distance is that of abstraction, not that of metatheatre.)
Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with being conservative — it’s not that. What I found troubling was the incosistency of Peymann’s approach. I’ll expand on that. At the Theatertreffen, a group of young artists debated the other day how to judge artistic quality; the key question they settled on was whether a work rigorously pursues its artistic intention on all levels (or by all means). There’s much to question about this approach, perhaps most obviously the idea that we can know a work’s intentions from the outside; I also wonder if works cannot be interesting or powerful even if they fail to realize that intention. But if we can separate intention and meaning for the moment and think of intentionality more simply as a set of choices, as the selection of specific formal, visual, or stylistic options (leaving aside the question of how to interpret those choices), I think the question of rigour — or, perhaps more conservatively, of coherence — remains relevant. Which takes me back to Peymann, and to what I found so disappointing about his Kabale und Liebe. I don’t know what he intended to achieve with this production, but what seems clear to me is that the various stylistic choices he made do not hang together, nor have they been put into some sort of productive tension. In the absence of coherence or strong contrasts, his directorial choices seem simply arbitrary — without being playful. And that’s a constellation that doesn’t leave a lot of potential for interesting work.
The inconsistencies run through the entire show, and are evident at every level. Characterization veers all over the place — some figures are very broad caricatures, while others seem to be conceived as psychologically complex beings; styles of speaking range from the stagiest of stage Germans I’ve heard in years (all crisply enunciated consonants and clear vowels) to the odd lapse into one regional accent or another (usually rare moments of performative clarity!); emotions appear and disappear at a dizzying pace without any kind of apparent self-consciousness or commentary. To put that last point differently: neither script nor staging really support psychological realism, but in scene after scene, the actors behave as if what they’re doing made perfect psychological sense, as if there were nothing artificial about what their figures were being put through.
The greatest incoherence of all, perhaps, is Peymann’s treatment of Schiller’s text, which has been cut to shreds in this production. Normally, I wouldn’t mind (see my rave review of Antu Romero Nunes’s Robbers for confirmation). Michael Thalheimer has done similar numbers on German classics — his Emilia Galotti cut easily half the lines from the play. But Thalheimer’s edits cut to the heart of things: they reduce the text to what he thinks of as its essence, its intellectual and emotional core(s). Peymann’s cuts, on the other hand, leave little of Schiller’s emotional depth, and almost none of the political and ethical debates the play stages. Time and time again, he — or rather, his dramaturgs — simplify scenes to the point that whatever feelings characters proclaim to have (and there are a lot of strong feelings in Kabale und Liebe) only appear as gestures, as surface phenomena, without much grounding in the text, without the tortured (and often endless) self-questioning, self-contradictions, self-revelations of Schiller’s dialogue. That the BE’s text (helpfully reproduced, with all cuts marked, in the program) retains a wealth of eighteenth-century acting directions, but little of the text that would give those directions substance and depth, is an indication of just how strangely superficial a script this has become. Thalheimer’s Galotti makes for pretty stunning comparison: that production also took a rather dismissive attitude to the text, showing us over and over again that the strongest feelings are beyond language, can barely be expressed physically. Peymann’s production, on the other hand, has his actors simply mark their alleged feelings over and over again, forcing them to fall back on a text of which there is too little left to support them. In the worst moments of the evening, it seemed to me that I was watching actors trying to convince themselves that their figures were feeling with an intensity the stage directions had told them to portray, but with no text to convey those feelings, and no freedom to rely on their own bodies, or an expansive spatial language, or anything other than the skeletal remnants of Schiller’s text. As it turned out, for me at least, that wasn’t anywhere near enough.
Let me illustrate. Here are two pages from the production text of Kabale und Liebe:
Even without reading German, you’ll get a sense of how much is gone from the text. This is the climax of the play: Ferdinand is about to poison himself and Luise, and these pages are like a distillation of longer scenes in Othello or The Winter’s Tale, perhaps even Cymbeline — Ferdinand is convincing himself, over and over again, that he is right to see his love as a faithless creature, a traitor to their love, while she is by turns uncomprehending and desperate to change his mind. Ferdinand’s long speeches, conversations with himself as much as with Luise, trace his frantic switching back and forth between love and hate, nostalgic memories and a resolve to revenge himself, his perception of Luise as an angel and his conviction that she in fact is a snake he needs to crush. In Peymann’s version, all we — and the actors — get is this, from the moment Ferdinand gives Luise a poisoned drink:
Ferdinand: The whore has a good heart, she does. Don’t all whores!
Luise (rushing towards him in full expression of her love): Would you say such a thing to your Luise?
Ferdinand (pushes her away): Away! Away! Take these soft eyes away! And that sweet voice — How can such cracked strings make such a beautiful sound? (Staring at her as if in a drunken daze) Everything so beautiful —
Luise: If I were allowed to open my mouth, Walter, I could tell you such things — I could — but instead I must bear you treating me like a whore.
Ferdinand: Are you quite well, Luise?
Luise: Why do you ask?
Ferdinand (more seriously): Luise! — Did you love the Marshall? You will not leave this room again.
Luise: I’m done responding.
Ferdinand (collapses at her feet in terrifying emotional upheaval): Luise! Did you love the Marshall? Before morning comes — you will face — God!
Luise (starts up in terror): Jesus! What are you saying? — and I’m feeling faint. (She sinks back into her chair.)
Ferdinand: Already? Just a small dram of arsenic and —
Luise: Poison! Poison! Oh my lord!
Ferdinand: Your lemonade [yes, really!] was spiced in hell. You drank death.
Luise: To die! To die! Poisoned lemonade and dying! Is there no rescue? Do I have to go?
Ferdinand: No rescue, you must go — but be calm. We are taking the journey together.
Luise: You too, Ferdinand? Poison, Ferdinand! Now I can’t keep quiet — death — death releases all oaths. I die in innocence, Ferdinand.
Ferdinand (horrified): What is she saying?
Luise: I’m not lying — am not lying — have only lied once in my life — when I wrote that letter to the Marshall — (her tongue getting heavy, her fingers start to twitch) That letter — your father dictated it.
Ferdinand (stiff and like a statue, stands rooted to the ground for a long, dead pause, then eventually collapses as if thunderstruck).
And on it goes. Lots of plot points. Lots of emotional reactions. But as for Ferdinand’s very specific conflict, two lines of fragmented clichés is all that remains. As I was typing this quick translation I noticed something I hadn’t realized before: the script doesn’t just retain all of the emotive acting directions; it also keeps the absurd number of “Luise”s and “Ferdinand”s. Where Schiller’s characters seek refuge in language (and are torn from that refuge again by language), Peymann’s emote and yell each other’s names.
After ten days of seeing an astonishing range of directorial and actorly approaches in Berlin, I can imagine any number of ways one might handle this scene, even in its anemic production script version. Playing it straight, as if there were enough in the remaining text to rely on — that’s not one of them. What I had to say about Oedipus in Oedipus Stadt may make for instructive comparison. There, too, I felt that the abbreviated text did not leave Ulrich Matthes enough time to build the intensity the figure needed. But in that production, there was at least an arsenal of staging and acting choices beyond the words that allowed Matthes to establish and express what was at stake: silence and non-naturalistic movement were as important as speech. No such arsenal was in evidence in Peymann’s Kabale und Liebe.
And there we go. The first actually poor production I’ve seen in Berlin this year. As I’m writing this, that’s 10 for 11. It’ll do.
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- The Changeling (Middleton & Rowley; dir. Jackie Maxwell) Stratford, July 2017
- How to Kill a Great Theatre: The Tragedy of the Volksbühne
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- British Theatre under the Influence (of much more than The Roman Tragedies)
- Hamlet (Shakespeare; dir. Robert Icke) Almeida, London; Mar. 2017
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Holger Syme's work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.
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