A visit to the Berliner Ensemble
It’s a warm Sunday evening. The square in front of the theatre is adorned by a statue of Bertolt Brecht. He looks almost too content with his legacy, an intriguing issue in a unified Berlin. The theatre itself is a baroque jewel, which always has half a dozen works of the maestro in rep.
It's hard to assess a show critically when you know the culture it emerges from on little more than a superficial level. I guess that is part of the reason critics garner respect. By paying their dues. The Berliner Ensemble had a reputation for innovation which has since, perhaps, been overtaken by the Schaubuhne or the Volksbuhne. I have little idea what to expect. We are there to watch Woyzeck, which one imagines has become a kind of ur-text in Germany (and beyond). A tabula rasa upon which a director can weave his or her magic.
Leander Haußmann’s version is immediately, resolutely modern. The most arresting facet of the show is its squadron of soldiers. Woyzeck is one of a band of about 25 brothers, whose erratic discipline, sometimes marching in step, sometimes acting as mocking chorus, sometimes jiving, gives the staging texture and depth. Marie is a spirited, flighty fun-loving figure who jitterbugs whilst Woyzeck is being tortured in a sadistic military hazing ritual.
The military uniform suggests the soldiers are from the US, something which is reinforced by the use of American music. At any moment a dance might break out, a dance which transforms into a battle. The fairground scene uses the revolve to create a beguiling ad hoc merry-go-round, as the soldiers “ride” helium-filled animal balloons. It’s a beautiful, virtuoso scene, one matched by the appearance of a real-life ape-man who struggles with a chair and then drinks a beer; ‘poor theatre’ with a philosophical punch. The play never uses any constructed scenery as such: the stage remains bare, defined by a vigorous use of lighting and the number of bodies which populate it. At one point a dozen pop-up tents appear; on another occasion an apparent verdant mound turns out to be made out of camouflaged soldiers.
There is no shortage of violence, something the play ironises when Woyzeck kills the sergeant major a dozen times to the music of Mozart's Figaro. The production veers in an increasingly expressionist direction as it nears the denoument. The political references introduced in the opening hour begin to feel slightly contrived as the play appears to fail to develop them in any meaningful fashion. I say “appears to” because the production is, naturlich, in German, a language which I don’t speak. I have no way of knowing if the text was was being adapted or not. I had the impression that it hadn’t been tinkered with much, but this opinion is purely speculative.
All in all, it could be said that Leander Haußmann’s production delivered what I might have expected. Self-consciously radical, an imagistic theatre, one which uses music and seeks to create a liberation from the word, one that uses violence with a Jacobean glee as a theatrical code, rather than naturalism. It is also a theatre whose use of staging elements: lighting; scenery; music; costume is resolutely anti-naturalistic, something which comes as a relief. There’s a theatrical dexterity which the British stage seems to struggle to emulate; a wilfully radical approach that might sometimes feel contrived but on the other hand ensured that this 2 hour version in a foreign language never felt dull or over-extended.