Berlin’s Maxim Gorki Theater, under the new artistic leadership that took charge last season, has quite aggressively redefined itself as what they call a post-migrant theatre — building an ensemble deliberately designed to reflect the multi-ethnic makeup of contemporary Germany (and especially contemporary Berlin), and staging a repertoire in which new plays, often with an explicit focus on questions of national and/or migrant identities, play a prominent role. But one major focus of their work has also been Chekhov.

Their first season opened with a production of Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard directed, like this season’s Uncle Vanya, by Nurkan Erpulat (himself a Turkish immigrant). Cherry Orchard is still in rep, and I saw both shows back to back last weekend.

Erpulat’s seasoner opener last year was clearly intended as a pretty in-your-face position statement. It begins with a woman in a burka entering to sit at the piano, where the first tune she plays is a traditional German folk song. Lopakhin is played by the German-Turkish actor Taner Şahintürk as a migrant worker’s son whose purchase of the cherry orchard represents the arrival of migrants’ descendants at the heart of German society. Once he announces that he has bought the estate in Act III, he first tears the wallpaper off the set (a simple flat wall halfway upstage that closes off the proscenium), revealing layers of German history — including a large Hebrew inscription — and then pushes the wall over altogether, revealing a stage on which a large Turkish party is in progress, complete with traditional music and drum-banging. By contrast, the ill-advised ball Ranevskaya throws as Act III opens here is a terribly stilted, robotic, alienated affair (though also reminiscent of Jürgen Gosch’s legendary Chekhov productions at the Deutsche Theater, with all actors lined up against the upstage wall).

Chekhovian lineup. - Photo Esra Rotthoff

Chekhovian lineup. – Photo Esra Rotthoff

Lopakhin’s Turkish party is bursting with life, with movement, and, not least of all, with a freedom of movement entirely missing from the earlier scene. If immigration is a threat here, it’s a threat Erpulat doesn’t restrict to the on-stage world: he has Şahintürk address the audience directly in his monologue, and the space that is being taken over is expressly not just a fictional estate — but also the Gorki Theater itself.

After the party - Photo: Esra Rotthoff

After the party – Photo: Esra Rotthoff

With a few exceptions, critics hated this Cherry Orchard. Mostly, they thought it was just too obvious — and in its obviousness, reductive. But now that Erpulat has delivered his second Chekhov, they seem to be looking back to last year’s production with a kind of wistful nostalgia: at least there was an argument there, the argument goes. In Erpulat’s Vanya, that explicit migrant perspective has largely vanished, and what it may have been replaced with is less than clear. As one critic put it to me, the Gorki has arrived: it’s now just another municipal theatre. By and large, that’s probably not an unfair charge: although the program reprints excerpts from an essay by Deniz Utlu that presents Chekhov as “an expert on migration” and Serebryakov as a returning emigrant, that’s not a perspective the show itself adopts with any consistency. The metatheatrical gestures that tied the fictional cherry orchard to the Gorki Theater itself remain in place in this Vanya, and consequently, Falilou Seck’s Serebryakov partly imagines his return to the estate as a return to the stage — a stage on which he finds it, to his own dismay, much more difficult than expected to connect to the audience that his eyes, dazzled by the lights, can’t even see. But if the self-conscious theatricality of Erpulat’s Cherry Orchard reinforced the post-migrant perspective (the actors are taking over the space as much as Lopakhin takes over the estate — and when he does so, the actor suddenly insists on the proper Russian pronunciation of his name, an insistence that reads as much as an acting choice as a cultural demand), the same self-consciousness in his Vanya undermines the already slight emigration/re-immigration theme: if Serebryakov, played by a French-born German actor of colour, is really an actor coming back to the stage, how does that map onto the narrative of migrants taking over spaces previously inaccessible to them and reserved for “Germans”?

What the critics miss in Erpulat’s Vanya is a clear political angle — or any angle at all. Their disappointment with the production, quite unlike their disappointment with his Cherry Orchard, derives from a sense that the production doesn’t have enough of an attitude — it’s unclear what Erpulat wants from Chekhov’s play. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the two UK critics who caught the show last week felt rather more positive about it: Andrew Haydon and Megan Vaughan. Unsurprisingly, because the expectation that a director will use a play to make a point — will present an argument not about the play, but about something else through and with the play, preferably in a formally inventive and rigorous manner — is not really part of English-speaking theatre criticism’s criteria for artistic success. (I don’t think I’m being unfair here — am I?)

I think I’m somewhere in critical no-man’s land in my own response. I agree with the German reviewer’s sense that it’s not especially clear what Erpulat is up to, and I do think that’s a weakness. I also don’t think the metatheatrical stuff, as much as I enjoy it whenever it happens, is much more than a habitual reflex: it’s just how you do theatre if you’re in this space. (Incidentally, I’m kind of surprised how much the Gorki team is presenting these gestures as something new. Jens Hillje, their head dramaturg and co-AD, spoke about moments such as Şahintürk’s playing with his own and his character’s identities as specifically typical of the new Gorki’s work at the Theater und Netz conference last weekend — but these moments struck me as remarkably reminiscent of the kind of theatre Armin Petras had been producing at the Gorki for years before moving to Stuttgart last year. Şahintürk’s monologue felt very much of a piece with Michael Klammer’s work in Antú Romero Nunes’s Robbers at the Gorki in 2013, and the metatheacricality in Uncle Vanya did not seem qualitatively different from that in, say, Jan Bosse’s staging of Petras’ adaptation of Anna Karanenina. In that sense, what the new leadership is doing aesthetically feels like a continuation rather than a new beginning.)

But I still genuinely enjoyed this show, and I thought it was more coherent — more consistent — than Erpulat’s Cherry Orchard, which really just had the one idea (clear though it may have been) and strung the rest of the play along, more or less uncut, without all that much to say about it. There were nice moments and some delightful performances (besides Şahintürk, especially Marleen Lohse and Aram Tafreshian as Anya and Trovimov), but the show as whole didn’t really gel: it drove towards that moment in Act III, and once that was over, it petered out a bit. The very end, though, was a recovery: Firs, played by the 78-year-old Çetin İpekkaya in a mixture of German, French, and Turkish, does get left alone on stage, as in Chekhov — but he doesn’t die. Having spent all of Act IV sitting on a suitcase centre stage in the slowly revolving ruins of the set, just wearing trousers and an undershirt, hunched over, ignored, and clearly bound for the solitary end the author had prepared for him, he suddenly gets to his feet as soon as everyone is gone, plays a riff on his clarinet, laughs loudly and grins into the audience — and the lights snap off. The old Turkish immigrant hasn’t been left behind: he has gained a new home.

Erpulat’s Vanya, by contrast, lacks this kind of clear organizing idea; I’m not sure it really has an obvious point to make. But it is a detailed and theatrically compelling piece of work, and a reading of the play that shouldn’t be dismissed as “boring” or “stale,” as some critics have done, simply because it doesn’t turn the play into a vehicle. In some ways, Erpulat’s work here reminded me of Elmar Goerden’s Wild Duck in Mannheim last year: like that production, this Vanya is miles from anything you’d ever see on an English-speaking stage; it relies on a thoroughly theatrical aesthetic and on a degree of actorly autonomy that are thoroughly German (and in fact may be so common in metropolitan German theatre now that they read as simply unremarkable to reviewers); it dissects the text in a way that would be quite unusual outside of Germany, isolating particular thematic preoccupations with a degree of clarity; but it actually sticks unexpectedly closely to Chekhov’s text and dramaturgical structure and, awful as it is to say, kind of “tells the story.”

Of course, what that looks like in a Berlin theatre really is nothing like what it would look like in Toronto, or London, or New York, most days. The show begins with an empty stage — there’s a spectacularly kitschy, even lurid backdrop, seemingly a painted cyclorama, of a forest; there’s a piano sitting upstage centre; and there are two enormously fat chickens huddled stage right — so fat that I thought at first they had to be fake. There’s piano music, but it’s not coming from the piano we see (theatre!). Then the entire cast march on, carrying dinner ingredients, chairs, and tables; pause for a moment; and then set up a long table downstage, plug in a string of coloured lights, and sit down around that table to enjoy their meal. For a good five minutes. Without so much as looking at us. Pretty much in silence. Then, suddenly, they all turn around to stare into the audience — directly into our eyes. Except for Serebryakov, at the head of the table, who looks away from us, upstage, perhaps at the woods. And then they all turn back to their dinner — and now it’s Serebryakov’s turn to stare at us. And then, he and Yelena get up and leave — and Astrov and Marina launch into the opening lines of the play.

That easy use of time, however much time the moment seems to require, is part of a specifically German stage aesthetic. It’s not exactly anti-realist — in a way it’s the exact opposite, but its very hyperrealism, the willingness to just sit there and eat without “doing” anything — and worse, without even showing the audience what’s happening, since half the actors sit there with their backs to us — is so deliberately non-communicative that it reads, to me at least, like a refusal of the conventional agreement between actors and audiences that underpin most forms of stage realism. It’s too naturalistic to conform to conventional expectations of what reality is supposed to look like on stage — it’s not representational enough. At the same time, this hypernaturalism sits side by side (incongruously, perhaps, but deliberately so) with gestures that highlight the artificiality of the enterprise: in the very next sequence, all the characters arrange their chairs side by side facing the audience and proceed to mime “sitting in the sun,” shuffling bodies and chairs to follow its rays, actors farcically responding to other bodies encroaching on their personal space.

Stage Russians tanning. - © Ute Langkafel MAIFOTO

Stage Russians tanning. – © Ute Langkafel MAIFOTO

And as soon as Vanya (Tim Porath) and Astrov (Dimitrij Schaad) hit their stride, their performances — full-throated, extreme, erratic — show few traces of naturalism, theatrical or otherwise. If those two are heightened in their volatility, Mareike Beykirch’s Sonya is heightened in her sheer stuntedness, her dropped shoulders, droopy fringe, shuffling, gawky movements, and hushed tones almost (but not quite) a caricature of a character. Seck’s Serebryakov stands out, in a way, thanks to his relative straightforwardness — where other productions exploit the character’s potential for caricature, here he’s almost the only figure that escapes that fate (but then, Seck’s metatheatrical discourse pulls the realist rug from under his character’s feet in a different way). Later, when Serebryakov reveals his plans, Seck responds to Vanya’s demand for a more detailed explanation by more or less repeating his earlier speech, broken down into colloquial bits and pieces — a kind of naturalism, an approximation of a chatty conversational tone that deliberately makes a hash of the text. (Parenthetically: the motif of the dinner table returns repeatedly, but the table disappears further and further upstage; it’s never as far away from us as when Serebryakov reveals his plans, the intensity of the scene oddly distanced by, well, physical distance.)
Just before the professorial speech - © Ute Langkafel MAIFOTO

Just before the professorial speech – © Ute Langkafel MAIFOTO

None of these are simply aesthetic choices, though. What becomes clear very quickly is that Erpulat’s Vanya is not especially interested in the boredom that the play cultivates so richly — the sheer uneventfulness of its “scenes from a country life,” before the explosion of Act III (and its containment in Act IV) — and which Robert Borgmann’s Stuttgart production of 2013 explored to the full. Instead, he portrays the cast of characters as an assembly of rural hysterics, easily triggered, always on the brink of another verbal explosion. As a consequence, there is nothing like the terrifying build-up of anger that Borgmann staged so effectively (if tryingly) — nothing like Vanya’s total collapse, nothing like the awe-inspiring actorly tour de force that was Katharina Knap’s Sonya’s meltdown. Erpulat doesn’t show a society crashing into despair (and flatlining after that) — he shows a society in a constant state of hysteria.

The word that echoes through the production is “work,” but labour here is not a means to an end, not something that can ever end, but the only escape from nothingness: the professor announces early on that he has work to do, and even though we learn quickly just how meaningless that work is (no-one reads him; no-one takes him seriously), it’s equally clear that meaninglessness is not a good argument against working. On the contrary, work is the only answer to meaninglessness. Coming face to face with the pointlessness of work — Vanya’s, Astrov’s — leads to meltdowns, monologues delivered at screaming pitch; and the cure for those meltdowns is more work, or more vodka. But where Borgmann created endless moments of silence, of nothing, of a broken-down Volvo spinning slowly on stage and actors wandering around in a daze, Erpulat instead puts characters on stage that do everything they can to avoid such states of inertia, that would rather act as if there were something to do than to confront the reality that there isn’t.

And Erpulat seems genuinely interested in Chekhov’s quasi-environmentalist passages: Astrov screaming about the destruction of the forests and its effects on the climate is obviously more than just faintly ridiculous monomania, especially in 2015; and the very relevance, the very pertinence of his words makes their ineffectiveness all the more painful. That same pertinence adds a remarkably nasty edge to the later scene when Yelena’s feigns interest in Astrov’s charts of the receding forests and the destruction of wild-life in the area. That she doesn’t care about any of it, that she is simply using what to her is Astrov’s mildly absurd preoccupation as a pretext for a conversation about the strictly personal, strictly local question of how Astrov feels about Sonya, registers more forcefully in this production than in others I have seen. The point isn’t just that she’s manipulating Astrov — it’s that her specific manipulative game speaks to a larger indifference to other people, other lives, to the world itself. And that attitude — the sense that people should just shut up and get on with things — permeates the entire show. It’s there in Sonya telling Astrov to get over his distress at having patients die on him, it’s there in everyone constantly telling Vanya to shut up (“Oh, Uncle Vanya, you’re being such a bore” might as well be the motto of the evening), it’s there in the constant pattern of people leaving the stage to “work.” And that’s more than ennui; it’s more than boredom. It’s a picture of a world that is rapidly becoming uninhabitable, socially and environmentally, but in which that recognition can only find expression in hysterical diatribes that sway nobody and embarrass all. On stage, that world has already lost the nature Astrov cares so much about: its only remnant is a lurid background painting of a forest that even Astrov can only dismiss as kitsch.

In a funny way, those abnormally large chickens bring the two challenges to life, the natural and the social, together: as both my English fellow bloggers wrote, one of the more noteworthy scenes of the evening is Vanya’s colloquy with a chicken in a box. The bird is obviously and kind of irreducibly a force of nature: not so much representation as total presence, ultimately uncontrollable (they poop on stage; they make beelines for dropped food; they even, in rehearsal, laid eggs!), and making absolute demands on the audience’s attention.

Look at those chickens! - © Ute Langkafel MAIFOTO

Look at those chickens! – © Ute Langkafel MAIFOTO

But it’s also bizarrely and, shockingly, uniquely sympathetic. As it listens to Vanya whine about his waste of a life, it clucks, it nods its head — that may just be simulacrum of sympathy, but it’s the best such simulacrum this production offers. Yelena’s fake sympathy for Astrov is less convincing. Sonya can’t communicate her own for Astrov (and in any case, desire is not the same as sympathy — so Astrov and Vanya’s feelings for Yelena really don’t count). Marina can only offer tea. No-one else seems to care about anyone or anything besides themselves at all. Except for the chicken. It may be a bit silly to claim that Erpulat is proposing a galline utopia; but the chickens are more than just a distraction, more than just a cheap theatrical trick. They are all the nature that’s left in this play — and they are more companionable, more caring, more social animals than any of the humans in its world. And, despite their proverbial tendencies, they are the least hysterical characters on that stage.

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