- The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Frank Castorf’s final season at the Volksbühne am Rosa Luxemburg Platz marked a return to what has been termed “Planet Dostoyevsky,” a theatrical landscape created by Castorf in numerous previous productions of works by the Russian writer, to stage his most acclaimed work, The Brothers Karamazov. December 2015 saw big changes for the Volksbühne, as Castorf, Intendant (artistic leader) at the theatre for the past twenty-five years, was to be replaced by a more traditional repertoire under incoming managing director Chris Dercon, the former museum director of Tate Modern in London. Planet Dostoyevsky marked the culmination of an extended exploration of Dostoyevsky’s work by Castorf over the past fifteen years that included The Insulted and the Injured, Demons (The Possessed), and The Idiot. Each of the works was staged in a similar format involving live action onstage, as well as mediated material captured live from offstage sources. Presumably as a parting shot to the theatre, Castorf removed all fixed seats from the orchestra section of the Volksbühne, literalizing his prediction of future empty houses. Many productions in repertoire during the remainder of the 2015–16 season required spectators to sit on the concrete floor. It was clearly a statement of protest, and the audience made a part of that protest. However, given the seven-hour duration of The Brothers Karamazov, beanbag chairs were provided. The evening was still quite a challenge, but Castorf’s work managed to engage the committed audience, most of whom remained for the entire production. [End Page 468]
The Brothers Karamazov also marked one of the final scenic designs of Castorf’s longtime collaborator Bert Neumann, who passed away in July 2015. The entire season was dedicated to Neumann, who was, according to production dramaturge Sebastian Kaiser, a driving force in Castorf’s overall theatrical vision. According to Kaiser, Neumann conceived the offstage action, camera angles, lighting, and scenic elements that were both captured on film and then realized live onstage. Two film crews, each consisting of a camera operator/director of photography, soundman, and lighting crew, accompanied the production’s dispersed action. Because about 70 percent of the play’s action was only visible via large onstage screens, audience members were forced to construct much of the world of the play in their own minds and consider offstage movement from location to location as the play progressed. The scale of the presentation was truly epic: onstage locations included a family house and lake; offstage mediated environments displayed a monastery, sauna, dining room, bedroom, streets outside, and the roof of the theatre itself, as well as other passageways and connecting areas.
This approach recalled the previous Castorf productions in Planet Dostoyevsky, all of which seemed indebted to the US reality-television show Big Brother in which technologies of surveillance intruded into the private acts of the characters. Many of the offstage scenes had the feel of a peep show, with the actors acknowledging the cameras and reacting in various ways to being discovered in flagrante delicto. At times, the characters were embarrassed; other times saw them welcoming the intrusion of the camera into their offstage world. As Castorf has advanced the techniques of this blended form of film/theatre, the styles of performance, attitude to the camera, and representation of playing space have become quite refined. This was apparent in the central plot surrounding the aging father Fyodor Karamazov and his struggles against his son Dmitri for the love of Gruschenka Iwanowna, a much younger woman. As the tension between Fyodor and his oldest son escalated, Fyodor became more engrossed with the camera, staring into it as if pleading for his life. This produced an advanced form of alienation: the actors and audience were made aware of both the live theatrical situations and the fact that the actors were being captured on film.
Three basic modes of acting characteristic of Castorf’s work were employed throughout. A basic realistic, film-based technique derived from Stanislavski was often seen in the...