My final day in Berlin, my sixth show at the Deutsches Theater: finally Shakespeare. And relatively rarely performed Shakespeare, too: Coriolanus, in a new translation by Andres Marber that to my mind got more right than wrong – it certainly didn’t interfere with my enjoyment as much as the late Thomas Brasch’s famed version of Romeo and Juliet did at the Schaubuehne earlier in the week.

On the surface, this looked like a radical staging of the play, the kind of invasive Regietheater so very rarely seen in English stagings of Shakespeare: the play was performed by a cast of five women, naturally in modern dress, and the set was a wall of wooden cubes – a bit like an old card catalogue sans handles, or like the end of a game of Tetris. Looking at the wall before the play began, I thought the Tetris metaphor was more apt: there is a sense, after all, that the game is already over before it’s even been played in Coriolanus, it’s just a question of how it’s going to end. As the evening went on, the wooden cubes would push forward and form steps and platforms, or they would recede to isolate actors on their own little perches. They could also be walls or gates (as in the battle of Corioli), seats and tables, and even props containers. What they weren’t was a naturalistic representation of anything, let alone any place or time: they served to facilitate and illustrate situations. And sometimes they simply became a screen for elaborate, more or less intriguing video projections.

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The show begins with the appearance of five women – they come from the auditorium, they cross the stage, looking a little unsure of themselves, and they go off through the stage right fire door. Then they come back. Certain now that they’re in the right place, they take their places, music starts, and they dance. Then they stop partying and start complaining: they’re the plebeians. But after a minute, one of them, amusingly the youngest actor, turns around, pauses, turns back to face us, and now is Menenius Agrippa, come from the senate to calm the people and tell them the famous allegory of the belly. He tells the remaining four women to sit and listen, and this they do; and when one of them gets up a little later, she is Cominius, the consul. This fluid switching between characters happens over and over, necessarily; sometimes, it takes a more marked form – Susanne Wolff and Natalia Belitski at one point pull off their hair to reveal entirely bald heads; with earrings, they’re now Volumnia and Virgilia; with moustaches (which they wear on a string around their necks), the corrupt tribunes, Sicinius and Brutus. The Volscians all wear long dark wigs; Jutta Wachowiak (who was a member of the DT ensemble for nearly thirty years and recently rejoined the house in her 70s) adds a pair of pretty silly Ozzy Osborne style sunglasses to become Aufidius. Only Judith Hofmann’s Coriolanus is almost singular – she fills out the ranks of the Plebeians in the beginning and those of the Volscians later on, but plays no named parts other than Caius Martius’s. Other than through tiny costume changes (if earrings and moustaches are costumes), the character transitions are accomplished through changes in voice, some more drastic than others, through shifts in physical attitude, but also through textual cues – sometimes an actor takes on a new character simply by being addressed as that person.

So far, so out-there (though not that far removed from the six-person Cymbeline with Mark Rylance at the Globe in or around 1999). Whether the production managed to make the most of the focus on gender questions an all-female cast may have invited, I’m not sure: there are moments, though, when the slippery alignment between sex and gender stereotypes that runs through Shakespeare’s play takes on impressive physical form on stage. When Susanne Wolff’s Volumnia argues with her son, for instance, she projects every bit as much masculinity as Hofmann’s Coriolanus, if not more – her shaved head, if nothing else, contrasts strikingly with Hofmann’s long, braided hair. Similarly, when Coriolanus is finally persuaded to debase himself and show his wounds to the people, Hofmann stands high up on the wall on a platform of drawers, pulling her dress over her head to reveal a body covered in bandages; she removes them one by one to show the fresh scars underneath. As she stands then, in her underwear, injured, vulnerable, it is difficult to ignore her physical presence; Coriolanus, in his vulnerability more than his pride (as Shakespeare and Plutarch would have it), takes on a feminine persona. At the same time, Hofmann’s proud defiance, her snide running commentary on the show, further complicates the picture: is (s)he overcompensating? Insisting on his or her heroic character over and against the physical inducement to pity? Either way, in moments like these, the staging truly engages the play’s complication of gender roles, frustrating any attempt to map masculine and feminine attributes onto the properly sexed bodies. At other times, though, the cross-casting has no effects at all, or gets resolved only through reaffirmed stereotypes – the permanently wailing Virgilia being perhaps the most troubling instance of that tendency.

But the women don’t just have to play men – when the scene shifts to the Volscians’ camp, they become animals, dogs, crows, and toads. Hofmann’s Coriolanus maintains traces of the toad she is as a Volscian walk-on, suggesting, I suppose, that Martius is somehow under Aufidius’ spell (Rafael Sanchez gives Aufidius’s speech that culminates in the vow to “wash my fierce hand in’s heart” an incantatory quality that makes the scene feel like something from Macbeth — it’s a neat idea, but not exactly borne out by anything else in the play or the production). Aufidius is often perched on a pair of drawers off to the side, looking out into the distance, screeching like an eagle.

In one way, then, this is a production that brings a whole lot of elements to Shakespeare’s play, some of them corresponding more closely than others to themes already struck in the text. I don’t know that they amounted to a clear directorial concept at all, though – at times, it feels as if Sanchez is just throwing everything he’s got at the play in the hope that some of it will stick. What exactly the projections are doing was unclear to me – sometimes they show swordfights, and took the place of of actual physical combat on stage, but that seemed lazy rather than intriguing. The set, too, while impressive (and remarkably versatile), functioned according to rather heavy-handed symbolic logic: bridges were built and disrupted in line with the text, Coriolanus found himself boxed in by the tribunes’ machinations, and so on. The more concrete, the more these set changes became merely illustrative, needlessly clarifying rather than complicating the text.

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Speaking of the text: for all its visual and casting experiments, Sanchez’s is a surprisingly faithful staging of Coriolanus. He pretty much unfolds the plot as Shakespeare wrote it, without especially major cuts or alterations. Textually, this did not strike me as a production that would have been out of place in an English theatre. What the actors do with that text, though, differs quite dramatically from scene to scene. I’ve come to associate this mixed style with the Deutsches Theater now: nowhere near as deconstructive as the Volksbuehne, nor as fleet-footed and improvisatory as the Gorki ensemble, almost all of the DT shows I’ve seen have a knack for laying a realist foundation (if with a stronger theatrical flavour than the Schaubuehne’s realism) which can then become a launching pad into wilder, more abstract, more distanced, or more ironic and metatheatrical acting choices. Both realism and overt theatricality are always available in most of these productions, and they certainly are here. Theatricality can take many forms: it may move into something close to caricature, in the portrayal of the tribunes; it may explore symbolic forms, such as the animal Volscians (I don’t mean to suggest that all these explorations are equally successful…); it may simply heighten the physical and vocal aspects of a performance (Susanne Wolff’s Volumnia in particular inhabits that full range); it may adopt the speech patterns of formal oratory; or it may push realism beyond its previous limits, such as when Judith Hofmann turns Coriolanus’ speech to the plebeians into a speech to the audience, appeals for our votes, turns her sarcasm on us (though just how participatory a moment this is supposed to be is unclear – unlike in a number of other shows, the audience wasn’t actively exhorted to speak here). This latter moment was the most improvisatory scene of the night, but even it did not really break with Shakespeare’s text – it may have turned us into Romans, but not in a way that pushed the character of Coriolanus beyond the lines the text gives him.

And therein lay the peculiarity of this production for me: it looks like a very “German” staging, it often sounds it, too, but at heart, it’s a fairly conventional treatment, a reasonably restrained effort to put the play on. There are pay-offs, of course: some of the play’s great scenes, whether it’s Coriolanus’ two speeches to the Romans or the encounters between Coriolanus and Volumnia or that between Aufidius and Coriolanus, are rendered with remarkable intensity and in beautiful detail (Hofmann in particular has a virtuosic ability to switch from an ironically deferential register to outbursts of self-loathing and disgust to an attitude of deep regret – and back again). But “rendered” they are, and to that extent, the most satisfying aspects of this production are also its least surprising ones.

Sanchez has come in for a lot of negative criticism in German reviews of the production because of this. One point that comes up repeatedly in those reviews is that there is no clear direction at all (the all-but-the-kitchen-sink problem I also sensed); as a consequence, a number of critics have said, Sanchez presents the play’s more problematic positions with a neutrality that comes close to shirking his directorial responsibility. Shakespeare’s portrayal of the people and their tribunes in particular becomes an issue for the show in those critics’ eyes: even if Coriolanus’ attitude towards laws and traditions is arrogant and ultimately self-destructive, the play still is at heart as anti-democratic, anti-popular-rule as any Shakespeare ever wrote. In reinforcing rather than counteracting Coriolanus’ negative portrayal of all the non-patrician characters, Sanchez implicitly appears to condone that anti-democratic attitude. I think that’s a fair criticism; it certainly makes for interesting comparison with the two Berlin Enemy of the People productions, both of which altered Stockmann’s anti-democratic rant into something else, differently complicated. But I am more fascinated with the implications of the critique than with its aptness or irrelevance. The predominant attitude among the reviewers clearly is that a director, when confronted with an older play that takes positions we may now find unacceptable, has a responsibility to deal with those positions – to change the play altogether or to contextualize them in a way that reveals their problematic nature. I suppose it would also be acceptable, if troubling, for a director to embrace those positions whole hog. What’s seen as weak, as unimpressive, as artistically clueless is any sense that a director simply deferred to an author’s text – simply illustrated the words on the page. (That’s not to say that German critics are as a rule so radical in their tastes that they give directors total license either – stagings that go “too far” are just as likely to come in for a drubbing. But for all the complaints about Regietheater and brutally deconstructive directors, there is clearly an assumption among reviewers here that it is a director’s job to take an attitude toward a play, and to find an appropriate, rigorously constructed theatrical vocabulary to translate that attitude into a surprising, innovative, new staging.

Even the most conservative critics seem to have accepted that performance is necessarily a dialectic – that any production that doesn’t transform the play it brings to the stage isn’t really doing what theatre is supposed to do. And that strikes me as a fairly profound difference in attitude to the way most reviewers write about theatre in the major English and North American papers. The German critics’ consensus on this Coriolanus was something like “Stellar actors, some nice scenes, but conceptually a mess; lazily thinks it’s enough to rely on Shakespeare and add some ornaments from the toolkit of modern theatre. Same old, same old. Mr Sanchez needs to think harder and give his actors something more interesting to do.” I have a sense that English reviews of Sanchez’s take on Coriolanus, by contrast, would have said something like “A lot of incomprehensible nonsense and heady stuff, but some very well-acted scenes; Mr Sanchez should have trusted his actors and Shakespeare more and given us more of the latter.”

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