Well, fuck.

This was a production I had looked forward to. The photos promised fun, if nothing else. It was supposed to be an unsentimental take on the play, putting desire above love. And Lars Eidinger is an exceptionally talented actor who has done great work in Shakespearean roles — his Hamlet in particular has deservedly brought him international recognition. So I thought this, only his second foray into directing (he previously helmed a production of Schiller’s Robbers with acting students at the Schaubuehne), should at least be interesting.

Well, it wasn’t. It was juvenile and laboured, with nary a trace of that fleet-footed improvisatory quality I’ve grown to love in the past two weeks. Virtually everything that happened on stage commented on the theatricality of it all — not a move I normally object to, but here, that metatheatrical move itself seemed so thoroughly staged that it lost all bite. The opening fight between the Montagues and the Capulets, sadly unfunny in its punning prelude (which needed to be illustrated with physical actions to work at all: never a good sign), played out as a stage-blood orgy, with actors squirting each other with fake blood from plastic bottles. Again, not a bad idea, just as the quick transformation of a battle to the death into something approaching a gangbang was a neat move — in theory. In practice, there was a slowness to the proceedings, a lack of spirit, and frankly, a lack of sexiness that didn’t bode well for the rest of the evening. Prince Escalus appears: he’s a little boy with a little golden crown. No idea why, but it’s a neat touch. Lady Capulet is all that remains of Juliet’s family, and she’s a screechy caricature of a sex-obsessed housewife, literally humping everything in sight, including the nurse (played by Sebastian Schwarz, who doubles as Paris). Illustrating her speech about Paris as an unbound book, she demonstrates (I guess) what she means by baring the nurse’s bum and pulling open her buttocks. Later, at the masked ball, she’s wearing a giant vagina as her costume; Juliet is a sex doll. Romeo and Juliet’s shared sonnet is gone, replaced with Mercurio’s Queen Mab speech (he interrupts them; once he’s done, they get to kiss again). Somewhere along the way, more or less all the men in the cast casually wave their dicks about: there’s never any kind of sexual charge to that, though sometimes it’s vaguely funny — unless the joke gets killed by a stagey double take.

I get it: the play’s not about love, its about sex. But where was the sex? Where was the desire? I saw a bunch of actors miming physical actions, but everything was so thickly parodied that lust was nowhere to be seen. Nor did it have a verbal habitation or name, despite all of Mercutio’s efforts to the contrary. I figured that would be a dream role for any German actor. It’s one of those Shakespearean characters, after all, who so often fall flat in English precisely because the impression of wit and verbal legerdemain so central to the figures is difficult to pull off if everyone knows your lines are scripted. I’ve never seen actors better at that feat — making the rehearsed and scripted seem improvised — than the actors I’ve been watching for the last two weeks. Tonight? Nothing. Tilman Strauss resorted to exactly the same arsenal of comedic histrionics you will see in every other Anglophone Shakespeare production: there was even a hip thrust or two. And accents! Funny accents! At times there was more laughter on stage than in the audience, unsurprisingly. Also funny: moonwalking. Which happens a lot.

Sex is, of course, awkward and inherently comical. But that’s not what the production tapped into. I didn’t get to laugh at oversexed people embarrass themselves. I didn’t even get an object lesson in how sex becomes awkward or funny on stage, or how ridiculous the stage can be when it’s trying to represent sexuality. For any of that to happen, the show would have had to take something seriously. I’m not sure it did. A figure like Lady Capulet could have been devastatingly sad, or repellent, or even funny — instead I’m not sure Lady Capulet was much of a figure at all, beyond an assemblage of tics, grabs, lunges, squeals, and screams. And I’m reluctant to blame the actress for that (Regine Zimmermann has, after all, done stellar work before).

Alternatively, sex could have been dangerous. It wasn’t that either. It’s quite emphatically not what kills Romeo and Juliet (I’m not sure what does). There’s a flash of danger in the nightingale scene, one of a handful of inspired moments, when Moritz Gottwald’s Romeo does not respond to Juliet’s invitation to pretend it’s still night by playing along, but by hurling a heavily sarcastic version of her pretence back at her: for once, something was at stake. But it was a tiny glimpse, no more. In general, the moments — and it really was little more than moments — between Romeo and Juliet (Iris Becher, who has only just finished her training) were head and shoulders above everything else in this production for me, as both actors allowed themselves to play with their figures, with each other, and with us in a way hardly anyone else did (Kay Bartholomaeus Schulze’s Friar Laurence also had that loose quality, even managing to make his lines sound throwaway and by-the-by at times). During the balcony scene, Gottwald reels off a string of love song references; eventually he’s handed a guitar from the wings and serenades his balcony-bound love. It’s like a less polished, roughly charming version of the love-song scene from Moulin Rouge, thoroughly entertaining, and it feels like it could go on forever — I at least didn’t want it to end. Now, that’s a cool moment: it’s obviously not from Shakespeare’s text. It’s in some ways not even true to the scene, as it puts Romeo in charge, at Juliet’s expense. It’s a bit rough and ready, endearingly imperfect. And it’s not make-belief; the guitar alone ensures that no-one could mistake this for anything but theatre. And yet, even as Gottwald came close to corpsing a couple of times, and for all its playful distancing manoeuvres, the scene had me feeling the same way the figures in the play feel: can this go on for a bit longer? Please?

Scenes like that had me wishing Eidinger had trusted his leads more. Or that he had decided to actually make the play about Romeo and Juliet rather than about Romeo and his bros. Gottwald, when with Becher, and Becher with him or on her own make so many interesting choices that I would have loved to see more of them, and less of the awfully predictable or uninteresting other characters. (I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed a Juliet giggle her way through the charnel-house fantasy, seeing the humour in Tybalt’s green corpse. I’m still not sure I think it’s a completely credible choice, but it certainly was an interesting one, and it made sense in the moment. It didn’t illustrate the text. It didn’t joke about it. It was a rare moment in the production where I got to watch an actor play with the play. And promptly, something intriguing happened.) In those scenes, the production did genuinely interesting work, vis a vis Shakespeare’s text, vis a vis what these figures have been in others versions, and in terms of the figures or the issues in this show itself. I would very much have liked to see what they could have done with the figures’ first meeting, or with the full nightingale scene, or what Juliet might have done with the intensely creepy “fiery-footed steeds” speech (that entire scene is gone), and so on. There is so much to play with in this overdone play, and so little of that playing gets done in this production.

Playing has nothing to do with being comical or comedic, of course. I’ve seen heartbreaking playful moments in many a performance these past two weeks. Which is why I wish Eidinger had taken the fact that he was directing a tragedy a little more seriously. Yes, it’s a hysterically overcharged play. No, it would be foolish to take Romeo and Juliet really seriously. But people do die in the play. In the Schaubuehne production, though, Mercutio’s and Romeo’s deaths might as well have been played by Nick Bottom (which made me wonder why Eidinger didn’t choose to stage Midsummer Night’s Dream instead). The verse didn’t help any, sounding rather a bit like like Peter Quince’s at times. (I don’t want to slight the late and much revered Thomas Brasch’s work, but what’s the point of larding blank verse with a rich serving of jingling rhymes in translation?).

I don’t mind parody. I don’t mind thick layers of metatheatricality. I don’t mind stagings that take the text apart. Nor do I mind productions that don’t take their text especially seriously. All of that is fine. But I do like to get a sense that a production is taking itself seriously, and that it’s trying to make some sort of point (either of an interpretative or a performative kind). Here, I’m not sure I could say what that point is. There’s too little sex in the show for it to be about sex, least of all teenage sex. There’s too little death for it to be about death. There’s too little love for it to be about love. Is it about how silly people are to take all of these things so seriously? Maybe, but then no-one in the play takes anything seriously at all. You can make fun of pathos, but surely not without portraying pathos first — can you? In this show, everything is always already at least a little bit ridiculous: deaths are funny, and sex is, or wants to be, funny, and the idea of authority is funny, and suicide is funny, and love — well, love is obviously a joke. But if that’s all there is to a production of this play, then it better be really, really funny. Because if most of those jokes turn out to be kind of lame, kind of laboured, kind of trite, kind of tired, kind of unspontaneous, kind of scripted: then why bother telling them?

Here’s what fascinating about this really quite disappointing evening, though: one of the most anarchic, free-wheeling actors in Germany gets to direct, and what happens looks anarchic and free-wheeling, but feels (to me at least) random, forced, and predictable. How does that happen? One thing I’ve come to realize in my two weeks in Berlin is that the phenomenon that looks like director-driven theatre from the outside is actually at least in part a form of theatre in which directors create space and limitations for actors and let them play within those parameters, and that sense of play continues past the rehearsal period into every night’s performance. But the process is not simply about freedom. It’s a system of restraints and liberties, and directors working within it need a fine sense for when the right balance has been struck. If actors have that sense, I don’t know. So Regietheater may still be a thing, not in the sense that directors are dictatorially in charge in Germany, but in the sense that the kind of acting I’ve written about so admiringly perhaps needs a helping (encouraging and limiting) hand, and an eye that’s not a performer’s.

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