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Photo by Monika Rittershaus
You’ve probably glimpsed its illuminated circular sign spinning high over the Spree north of the Friedrichstraße S-Bahn. The theatre that currently houses the Berliner Ensemble began its convoluted history in 1892 as the Neues Theater, focused on the contemporary theatre of the day, like German expressionist Frank Wedekind.
Under the name ‘Theater am Schiffbauerdamm’, it was then the site of the premiere of Bertold Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera in 1928. Brecht and his wife Helene Weigel founded the Berliner Ensemble in 1949 and moved into their Spree-side digs in 1954. While Brecht only finished one production before he passed away in 1956, the theatre has continued to produce top-quality versions of the standards in both the German and international theatrical canons.
Privatized since the fall of the Wall, the program still sticks to the fairly conservative classics, but the ticket prices can be downright cheap; a significant portion of the seats cost only €5-10.
The direction tends toward the physical, making many of the productions accessible for those with less-than-perfect German.
The American-born director Robert Wilson, now a staple in the European theatre world, produced two of the most successful productions currently in repertory, a Kabuki-influenced, impeccably-choreographed version of The Threepenny Opera and a surreal visual collage of Shakespeare’s Sonnets laced with music by Rufus Wainwright. His version of Wedekind’s Lulu plays will receive its world premiere this month.