Friday 11 October 2013

Das Himbeerreich – Deutsches Theater

[seen 3/10/13]

As I said in my introduction to stuff I saw recently in Berlin, there is a level on which the most surprising thing about Das Himbeerreich (The Raspberry Reich) is how unsurprising it is. Or rather, that it surprisingly – shockingly almost – appears to be something like a German version of Angus Jackson’s 2009 staging of David Hare’s The Power of Yes. And, by “German version” I mean “a version in German”. I don’t mean any of that stuff we might associate with “German Theatre”. So, yes, it’s a surprise.

It’s also not an especially not-brilliant-at-German-friendly production. Oddly, I’d managed to get through The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant knowing more or less exactly what was going on, despite the absence of surtitles, two nights previously. However, there’s a vast gulf between a pretty obvious love story where much of the dialogue is “I love you”, “I hate you” and “he is a big black guy with a big black cock” (no, I have no idea where I picked that phrase up either) and what appears on the surface to be quite an involved discussion of obscure financial vehicles.

The nice people at the DT press office did send me a copy of Andres Veiel’s script, however, which I duly ran through Google translate, to at least get the gist of what it was I’d watched. And, reading it, you immediately see that this is In No Way anything like The Power of Yes. Also, it’s worth having a looking at the reviews, which fulsomely praise Veiel’s writing and construction of the piece. Apparently it is something like verbatim theatre – but it’s so far been unclear to me whether the interviews have just been tarted-up, or are entirely fictional creations based on interviews or research.

What is interesting, however, is the subject. In my recent (and now much-argued-over) piece on the Romanian verbatim tendency, one thing which I suppose I might not have explicitly stated, was my frequent discomfort with the choice of subjects for much verbatim theatre. The whole idea that verbatim theatre is the best tool with which to “give voice to the voiceless and the dispossessed” strikes me as incredibly problematic. Not least because, after all, couldn’t theatremakers be seen, much less than “giving someone a voice”, to in fact be taking someone’s voice and appropriating it for their own ends? (I don’t include tribunal plays (or tribunal operas [trailer for the film version]) and the like in this – they’re something else entirely. Nor do I include Rimini Protokoll’s shows (or the growing UK version of this like Chris Goode’s 9 and Rajni Shah’s Glorious), which use actual people.) But this is more or less precisely the opposite. It is giving a voice to the most powerful. However, when you think about it, they also endure a sort of voicelessness: an anonymity, a beyond-reachness, a diplomatic silence. Of course they aren’t *under-represented*: their every last need is represented by successive governments irrespective of party of political leaning. Nevertheless, we mere mortals never really get to hear from them.

And I think this is much of the theme of the piece. It cracks open the world of the banker with a penetrating exposition. Of course, we’ve seen this piece before in Britain, both as drama and as documentary-theatre. Except, of course, in Britain we’ve been completely fucked by the banks. This is Germany. This is the economic powerhouse of Europe. This is the country that – well, thanks largely to having a manufacturing industry and a very astute chancellor – didn’t go down in the recession. And Germany doesn’t have anything like the horrific problems of ostentatious wealth and a borderline class war that is only ever seconds from exploding like Britain does. On the whole, Germany strikes me as a country of quiet, serious, sober, thoughtful people. And with a mostly tasteful rich [edit: except this weird guy]. Which, I’ve got to say, also helps. (Possibly I’m wrong and am still viewing the place through rose-tinted specs. But I don’t think so. Not everywhere has to be as backward, Anglo-Saxon and medieval as GB).

There remains, however, an interesting problem in reporting work with which you haven’t actually been able to immediately connect in the theatre. I remember being faintly surprised that the Canadian critic Kelly Nestruck was actually reviewing plays in Germany (a language which he doesn’t speak fluently) for a newspaper. And I remember thinking to myself, I’m not sure I’d be comfortable making any real judgements professionally in that case. Sure, it’s fine to blog about it endlessly, when one can point up one’s inexpertise and the compromised position, but an *actual review*?

So, my choice here is read the play and then offer a work of post-fact literary criticism, which might or might not have been how I’d have experienced the piece while watching, or else, to describe just the effects of watching the thing in more-or-less total ignorance (or at least, certainly without any appreciation of the literary merit).

On balance, as theatre is a live artform, it feels like the former option would be disingenuous, but the latter is too thin. The cast were strangely compelling. I had no problem just watching them talk for 90 minutes, despite not fully knowing what they were saying. The cast also included Ulrich Matthes, who most British readers will know best for his role as Goebbels in Downfall. I have to say, he’s a) much better-looking in real life: shockingly so, and b) he’s one of the most charismatic actors I think I’ve ever seen on stage. Completely magnetic.

Latvian designer Julia Kaschlinski’s set, while not perhaps the most exciting I’ve ever seen on a German stage, is nonetheless gorgeous and impressive, with two working lifts and brushed steel walls, it evokes precisely the sorts of financial fortresses with which our cities are filled.

Ultimately, I should admit that I’ve had infinitely more thrilling nights in the theatre than this, but that in this case the fault is almost certainly 90% mine (10% theirs for not being more banging and visual, maybe, but perhaps that would have totally jarred). It is strange to see something so text-serving in a country where one generally imagines such an approach has been left out on a hillside to die. I couldn’t help hoping that Andres Veiel (who directed his own script) is an exception rather than an oncoming tendency, or does other things at other times.


Paul said...

Have you seen 'Ours Was The Fen Country'? Only verbatim piece where I didn't feel uncomfortable (saw it at NT Shed)- felt like the adoption or presentation of voices/words/recording was always highlighted and conscious. It managed to make it simply what it was (the things people in the Fens say when asked questions about what they think of the Fens) rather than a political speaking on behalf of or anything like that.

Andrew Haydon said...


No. I didn't/haven't seen it yet. I did see 30 Cecil Street though, which I think was sort of the same idea (recorded voices, same dancer/creator). And, no, I guess it didn't make me feel at all uncomfortable, although as soon as you mentioned it, I thought of a raft of reasons why it could... :-/

Tanya said...

Just been to see this at DT, with English surtitles (thank god) & was also struck by its not-very-German-in-form-ness. V text heavy, v unexpected. Have to disagree with you somewhat re the heart of the piece. Is it not less about "cracking open the world of the banker" / understanding the financial crisis in and for itself, but rather a (perhaps underdeveloped) attempt to use documentary to start thinking outwards from the specificities of this crisis? I.e. what is teh relation of this particular crisis to crises in general, to war, to catastrophe, to reconstruction, to accumulation, to the production of value? Lines about how 'the war enabled the building of universities', 'gold teeth extracted from the mouths of Jews', all the recollections about fathers and childhoods post-WW2, etc. And then the questions raised personal responsibility and complicity, which seemed to me to go beyond the usual greedy-individual-bankers vs its-the-system-man commentary.

Tbh, as a theatrical experience I found the play a bit, well, dreary on the whole, but there was a moment of real electricity and tension tonight with Ulrich Matthes's monologue on how it is the placid majority, the ones who don't dissent when a wrong is being committed, who are the most treacherous, the biggest threat ("They sneak up behind you in the dark and stab you in the back") and then, I think quite soon after, he comes right up to the edge of the stage and, with incredible ferocity, challenges the audience: "So why don't we stand up? Why don't we get more angry?". At this moment, the quiet, sober, thoughtful and tastefully rich Germans around me burst into loud extended applause. Firstly, I can't imagine this reaction in an equivalently bouji venue in London. Secondly, in this moment, the exchange between Matthes & the audience just didn't feel as though it were only about bankers and their excesses... What can an audience really do, in that moment, to such a challenge? It felt somehow charged and frustrated and bathetic. Maybe I'm over-reading...

Fyi, here's a great review, which more eloquently describes this moment (& with a v different mood of audience):