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Theatre Journal 52.2 (2000) 266-269
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Theatertreffen Berlin. 1-24 May 1999.
Berlin, once the Cold War's most hotly-contested cultural battlefield, is now the painfully self-conscious capital of the reunified Germany. Within this changed context, the Theatertreffen, established thirty-six years ago by the West German government, has become a barometer for the political passions that hold sway over contemporary Germany's highly subsidized theatre. This year, a newly appointed jury announced that its selections should be read as a rebuke to politicians who pressure artistic directors into devoting their resources to theatrical "events," rather than to the long-range development of ensembles. With the innovative ensemble work of the Berliner Ensemble and the Schaubühne Berlin in the historical rearview mirror, this year's offerings were intended to champion the artistic interests of German theatres, and to showcase theatrical achievements typically not high on Kulturminister priority lists: exemplary but expensive ensemble work, lesser-known but provocative young actors and actresses, and an engagement with controversial cultural and political issues. The result was a rich display of talent and artistic audacity revealing the contingent state of contemporary German theatre.
The production conveying the jury's sentiments most pointedly opened the Festival: Thomas Bernhard's Claus Peymann kauft sich eine Hose (Claus Peymann buys a Pair of Pants), presented by the Akademietheater Vienna. Bernhard's three short farces were originally written in 1985/86 as a scathing satire on Claus Peymann, then artistic director designate at the Burgtheater Vienna. Bernhard presents Peymann as a presumptuous neophyte who overestimates his own artistic abilities. However, coming more than a decade into Peymann's tenure at the Burgtheater, the play had lost most of its sting. The performance amounted to little more than a showpiece for Peymann's actors Martin Schwab and Kirsten Dene and was a clear affront to Bernhard, whose last will expressly prohibited any future performance of the play in Austria. In fact, the jury's decision to invite this innocuous performance could be read as an approving nod toward Peymann's impending takeover at the Berliner Ensemble, where he faces a similar situation to the one he had at the Burgtheater more than a decade ago--reviving the artistic and cultural significance of Germany's internationally best-known ensemble.
Several offerings at the Festival seemed to dwell in Germany's theatrical past. The Schaubühne Berlin production of Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya [Theatre Journal 51.2: 196-200], Frank Castorf's production [End Page 266] with the Volksbühne ensemble of Sartre's The Dirty Hands [Theatre Journal 51.2: 196-200], and the Schauspiel Leipzig's performance of Heiner Müller's Weiberkomödie (Women Comedy), were all invited to the Festival. This last production, presented in a typically didactic style, was evidence of an East German theatre highly aware of its past but still insecure about its artistic and political future.
One of the Theatertreffen's most eagerly-awaited productions was Gerhart Hauptmann's rarely seen Rose Bernd, performed by the Schauspiel Bonn. In hindsight, the performance must be regarded as a paradigm of the jury's decision to showcase extraordinary individual performances by rising actors. The performance featured Johanna Wokalek, winner of this year's acting prize at the Theatertreffen, in the title role. Wokalek's Rose stood out as a tough and sensuous young woman forced to kill the baby she conceived in an affair with a wealthy estate owner. Unfortunately, the production suffered from lack of a unifying dramaturgical vision that might have helped the audience understand the societal forces compelling Rose to murder her child. The production team provided a stage space rich in metaphorical possibilities, a modernist abstraction consisting of dozens of boards hammered into the stage floor with long metal rods protruding. However, the space seemed to emphasize director Valentin Jeker's lack of vision because he failed to take advantage of the visual representation the set provided for the closed society bearing down on Rose. Instead of guiding the ensemble with blocking...