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Theatertreffen: A crumbling bastion of the white male

Germany's biggest theatre fest kicks off May 4 (through May 21) and the Berliner Festspiele continues its march to a more diverse Theatertreffen. Here are three productions that don't have a white male behind them.

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Photo by Judith Buss

The Berliner Festspiele continues its march to a more diverse Theatertreffen.

It’s back – Berlin’s Theatertreffen (May 4-21), the spring theatre festival that’s been showcasing the 10 most “notable” productions per season in the German-speaking world since 1964.

The festival’s stated mission has not overtly changed over the years, but it has made important reforms in response to certain criticisms, like adding a side-section that highlights new voices (The Stückemarkt) to remedy an obvious neglect of new plays in favour of big stage classics.

The festival has also become more diverse: four members of this year’s (admittedly all-white) seven person jury are women; four of the 10 productions had a female director or playwright; and, for the second year, it’s hosting a festival within a festival under the English motto “Shifting Perspectives,” which seems to deliberately counteract the historical whiteness of Theatertreffen with two performances from the Middle East, two from Africa, one from Brazil, and one from Singapore.

And it just so happens that three of the most intriguing productions this year are breaking that white male template. Most salient of all is Mittelreich (photo), directed by Anta Helena Recke, a German woman of colour. Mittelreich was a musical stage adaptation of a novel that traces a family of Bavarian innkeepers through several generations, originally directed by Anna-Sophie Mahler and invited to the Theatertreffen two years ago. Recke has created an exact copy of that production but cast actors of colour to take all the roles in an attempt to subvert the normative gaze of white German theatregoers It’s a must-see if for no other reason than to understand the fervent critical controversy it inspired at its Munich premiere last October.

In Beute Frauen Krieg, director Karin Henkel tells the story of the Trojan War from the perspective of women who suffer its consequences, making use of contemporary adaptations of Euripides’ The Trojan Women and Iphigenia at Aulis. Different actresses take turns at playing Helena and Iphigenia, recalling a cascade of female tribulations and casting accusations at the men they blame for them. The production’s highlight may well be seeing its German actresses deploy their techniques alongside the dynamic Brit Kate Strong, who started dancing with the likes of William Forsythe and Johann Kresnick but has for years been rocking Germany’s spoken theatre with her charisma – appearing in multiple productions that have been invited to the Theatertreffen. (She performs in English in this bilingual production).

Finally, Nobel prize-winner Elfriede Jelinek takes aim at more than just the patriarchy in Am Königsweg (The Royal Road), directed here with a lively touch by Falk Richter. Written in the wake of Trump’s election, the play is less an excoriation of ignorant, crass authoritarians (although that’s there) and more an examination of the inability of those who know better to stop them, with Europe coming under the microscope, too. Between these three Theatertreffen plays and the non-European offerings of “Shifting Perspectives”, you might finish the festival feeling pessimistic about the white patriarchies they critique in the world at large, but optimistic that at least one bastion of white patriarchy, the Theatertreffen itself, seems to be evolving, however slowly, into something else.

Beute Frauen Krieg May 6,7,8 Rathenau Hallen | Mittelreich May 17, 18 (with English surtitles) Deutsches Theater | Am Königsweg May 12, 13 (with English surtitles) Haus der Berliner Festspiele