Wednesday 17 May 2017

89/90 – Haus der Berliner Festspiele, Berlin

[seen 14/05/17]

this picture really doesn't do the thing justice

89/90 is brilliant. I wish there was the slightest possibility that the Barbican would consider briefly freeing itself from its stultifying addiction to the Schaubühne and bringing it over so that English people could see some real German theatre*.

89/90 is director Claudia Bauer’s an adaptation-for-stage of Peter Richter’s wenderoman of the same name. When I say “adaptation-for-stage,” I don’t mean in the horrible, tedious, English, Jane Eyre/Tenant of Wildfell Hall sense of “lifting the dialogue from the book and making it into *a play*”. 89/90 has been made into a piece of theatre; a full-bodied, glorious, extraordinary piece of theatre, which couldn’t be anything except a piece of theatre. Although at the same time – I won’t say “unusually for Germany,” but – you do get a strikingly clear sense of what the book might be like, and what the story it tells is.

Let me try and describe it: the set (Andreas Auerbach) is a massive wood panelled hall. In Haus der Berliner Festspiele it feels almost like it it completes the high wooden walls that make up the rest of the auditorium. I wonder, slightly, if in Leipzig (from where this production comes) it is an exact continuation. The result looks like a deliberate hommage to designer Anna Viebrock’s work with Christoph Marthaler, evoking that similar look of utopian socialist interiors from the post-war era.

Set into the rear wall, about halfway up, is a large gauze screen and, dimly visible behind it, a small radio-studio like room, in which our narrator is talking into a microphone (yes, of course this is live-projected onto the screen). As we, the audience, file into our seats, he’s repeating a few opening phrases for a good few minutes while we all get settled. He’s talking about life in 1989 in the DDR, when he was a young man. He’s talking about going to the swimming pool after nightfall, and about the girls in his class, and about the fights that used to start where he lived, over low, almost imperceptible music that sounds like it’s from Twin Peaks.

What’s fascinating about the narrative is how familiar much of it sounds. The narrator is only maybe a year or two older than me, and what he’s writing about, as much as the end of the DDR and the “reunification” of Germany, is being young at the end of the eighties. In this, the narrative – written in 2015 – feels weirdly like one of the Stephen King books written in the seventies or eighties where the older narrator tells a story about growing up in 1950s America (easily as iconic an era as 1980s DDR to me). And what’s most striking of all, is that these (yes, yes, straight, white male) narratives are generally as much about trying to get off with girls as they are about the macro-politics of the age.

To get back to the staging: while all the above is clearly legible in what happens over the course of the three hours of the piece (mit pause), the other masterstroke here is the semi-DDR aesthetic used to convey huge chunks of the thing. There is a large choir, and there is A LOT of singing. The songs are mostly ex-East German punk songs, but arranged as if they’d been written by Bach [some examples of the originals at the end, I wish they’re release an 89/90 OST, though]. There are also these “Pinocchio”/baby-headed “bathers” in fat-suits, who evoke both the pool of the narrative, but also just a kind of Brazil-like, flat-out strangeness. There are sort-of parodies of DDR lessons with a focus on a sort of kinaesthetic, athletic learning. These elements mash-up together to create these at once concrete and abstract visual and sonic landscapes, which somehow tell the story with snippets of speech interposed into sequences of movement and gorgeous music.

Frankly, I could have watched all 400+ pages of the book told like this.

Then there’s the bit, just before the interval, where the wall comes down, and the narrator’s friend (already teased for having had a “Kim Wilde” phase) performs a violent, electro-punk version of ‘Kids in America’ backed by the baby-headed swimmers playing strange small sampler machines. The stage revolves to reveal a sort of Frank-Castorf/Bert Naumann-style scaffold topped with a massive neon advertising hoarding. It’s loud, it’s brilliant, and it somehow manages to be incredibly moving – upsetting even – as a representation of the complete massacre of an ideal, as well as the overthrow of an irritatingly oppressive regime. There’s a resolute refusal to really compare the before and the after, and there’s no real way to compare a repressive but idealistic ideology with the abysmal mess that is Western Capitalism, not to compare “life in the DDR” with “life in ‘united’ Germany. One of the narrative’s strengths is its refusal to get into debates, but instead to keep on just reporting events.

The second half is largely the story of a running battle between punks and skinheads in 1990. It’s almost like Trainspotting meets the next series of Deutschland ‘83. I wasn’t sure where the story was set. I imagined Leipzig, but perhaps it was Berlin – they certainly go to Berlin at one point. Although, with a few adjustments, it could have been Leeds or New Cross in 1980 or 1990. There’s partly a sense that with the DDR taken apart – like the destruction of the North of England under Thatcher – this theoretically left-wing place suddenly filled up with a lot of neo-Nazis. And that, even beyond the politics, this maybe wasn’t even so much to do with the actual politics, so much as the politics of boredom and violence and youth, and everyone just picking a side and fighting because there was nothing else to do.

The juxtaposition of this sort of youthful nihilism (on both sides) with the extraordinary beauty of the music and staging.

So, yes. This was gorgeous. Somehow fast-paced and slow at the same time (in a good way). Not really like anything I’ve ever seen before. Made in the city theatre of a minor city in ex-East Germany, and yet looking more expensive than something in the West End. Most of all, though – contra Hytner – it was both artistically ravishing, and deeply and completely accessible. It spoke to real people, intelligently, theatrically and movingly, about things that they cared about; about their lives. (More so than anything I ever saw at Hytner’s NT that wasn’t directed by Katie Mitchell, thinking about it.)  I wish we made things like it here in England; I’m always slightly heartbroken that we don’t.

*This is, of course, unfair. I’m still indebted to the Barbican for bringing over Thomas Ostermeier’s Zerbombt (Blasted), and giving me my first(?) taste of German theatre (aged 30, FFS); so why shouldn’t other people benefit in the same way? Well: a) it’s 11 years later, Ostermeier isn’t getting any younger, and he certainly isn’t getting *more* interesting, b) furthermore, Schaubühne work – certainly the stuff that tours here – is now deliberately *international*. Like Ivo van Hove’s work, it feels increasingly like it’s being tailored to an “international” market, which increasingly means: “New York”. And surely our intelligence and politics haven’t yet become so degraded that we have to stoop that low. But most of all c) when I think of all the work I’ve seen from Germany, from Poland, from ex-Yugoslavia, from Austria, etc. which has been blocked by yet another Ostermeier production, well, if nothing else, it’s not good diversity, is it? People have the impression that European Theatre consists solely of the Schaubühne and Toneelgroep, and gthat makes me sad.

Songs! (with massive thanks to Annegret Maerten):

Machine Children!

Pisse (not sure this was in the show, but...)

Feeling B – Artig

Kids in America – Kim Wilde:

Ficken Fressen Fernsehen:

Unsere Heimat:

Nazi Punks Fuck Off – Dead Kennedys:

--- Fin --- 

Composition and musical direction PEER BAIERLEIN
Chorleitung DANIEL BARKE



Daniel Barke (conductor), Sophia Bicking, Annelie Echterhoff, Dirk Fehse, Cornelius Friz, Antje Herbst, Judith Hermann, Josefine Huff, Thomas Jahn, Berivan Kernich, Meta-Elisabeth Kuritz, Manuel Lauterbach, Ralf Lichtmann, Martin Lorenz, Jonas Lürig , Benjamin Mahns-Mardy, Johannes Martin, Teresa Martin, Katie Mc Cann, Hanna Petersen, Elena Rose, Jule Rossberg, Merle Scheiner, Helen Schneider, Henriette Schreiner, Martin Schulz, Raschid D. Sidgi, Michael Storr, Dominik Triebert, Theosophy Ulbricht, Juliane Urban, Leon Wienhold, Wolf-Georg Winkler, Josefine Helene Zimmermann, Debora Zitzmann


Anonymous said...

Dear Andrew
You are most interesting theatre critic writing at the moment, that I know of, but does every single review HAVE to mention Katie Mitchell?

Andrew Haydon said...

Fair point. But she is the nearest accessible point of comparison re: big screens, surely?

Anonymous said...

She is, and a fantastic artist, but not alone in her imaginative use of video. Does anyone remember Julia bardsley? The forgotten genius of British theatre I think. Still popping up in abandoned shops from time to time. Declan donnelan uses similar techniques ( sometimes), and others. I'm teasing about Katie really, but I've followed your blog for ages, wishing I could see the work you describe, and a certain fanboy theme is apparent...