Two new productions demonstrate wildly different takes on the utility of Brecht’s plays today.
What’s to be done when the powerful deny the truth? What virtue is there in rebelling? Premiering at the Berliner Ensemble last month, two new productions of Brecht’s plays address these questions in markedly different ways. Under the direction of former Volksbühne intendant and ageing enfant terrible Frank Castorf, Brecht’s Leben des Galilei has been reworked as a metatextual endurance epic entitled Galileo Galilei: Das Theater und die Pest, while a young cast from the Ernst Busch Drama School breathes new life into Antigone des Sophokles.
First written in 1938 and then rewritten in 1945, Brecht’s Galilei focusses on the ethical responsibilities of scientists. Ensemble veteran Jürgen Holtz plays the lead, ably supported by a cast of Castorf regulars. Sadly, Holtz’s Galileo is a diminished figure. On premiere night, Holtz had to be reminded of his lines so often that the octogenarian actor’s frustration with his failing memory was visible. Castorf has developed Brecht’s text into a Theatre of Cruelty workshop bent at determining unpleasant truths. All the director’s trademarks are there, from projected video streams to screaming actors and the excessive runtime. This approach raises a question: just because Castorf can bring his full arsenal of post-dramatic tricks to bear on Brecht’s classic, does that mean he should? The answer is no, at least not if you were hoping for an effective and coherent production of Leben des Galilei. Following the debacle of his Baal at the Münchner Residenztheater, Castorf’s relationship with the Brecht estate might be described as strained at best, so it’s no surprise that his reworking of Galilei is billed as “von und nach” Brecht. But by refunctioning Brecht’s historical drama as a post-dramatic slog, Castorf’s production disappears up a metatextual cul-de-sac. Why bother adapting Brecht’s play if you’ve nothing to add except diffusion and frustration?
Enter: Veit Schubert’s Antigone des Sophokles, a production that provides a much more traditional, and yet more effective take on Brecht’s work. Performed in the BE’s newer Kleines Haus, it seeks to interrogate the virtue of youthful rebellion and the excesses of total power. Aysima Ergün and Oscar Hoppe provide standout performances as a fiery Antigone and neurotic Creon respectively, while the remaining cast deliver Brecht’s verse with eloquent gusto. At a time in which Europe’s youth are being shafted by austerity and rightwing demagogues, the questions posed by the text are given a sharpened relevancy by the age of the cast. A few odd dramaturgical choices aside, such as making the chorus soldiers instead of citizens, the production largely succeeds, albeit in a functional and straightforward way.
Since taking over the BE, Oliver Reese has pledged to focus on contemporary issues. In this regard, Antigone is the more successful production. Castorf’s attempt to develop Brecht’s text into an Artaudian experience, a grotesque laboratory for exposing ugly truths, is an admirable and sometimes exhilarating one. Ultimately, it doesn’t work, not least because of Castorf’s own theatrical hang-ups and the age of his lead actor. Among Brecht’s many maxims, “the proof is in the pudding” probably best applies here. Castorf’s production is a turgid mess, a blancmange collapsing under its own weight, while Antigone is light and bright: something like a meringue.
Die Antigone des Sophokles Mar 11, 20:00, Mar 12-13, 11:00 | Galileo Galilei Feb 10, 16, 18:00, Feb 17, 16:00