Herz Der Finsternis takes audience members on a boat trip down the Spree, with real-life refugees in the starring roles.
The numbers are at a record high: In 2015 so far, more than 100,000 refugees and migrants have crossed into Europe. The influx has thrown political leaders into a panic. Artists and performers are responding, too. Local group Theater der Migranten’s new project is staged on a boat floating down the Spree, and acted out by about 15 refugees, mostly from West Africa. Director Olek Witt explains.
How closely are you drawing on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness?
It has that fundamental premise: a group of people goes on a journey to reach something or someone. With us, it’s the audience going on a journey through an unknown territory, through an unknown Berlin. We want to defamiliarise certain things. By no means do we want to re-enact Lampedusa. Instead, it’s about inverting the perspectives, so the refugees are the ones playing the Germans. Or maybe we’re 500 years in the future and there aren’t any more Germans.
What’s it been like working with the refugees?
It’s a challenge. Most of them don’t have any theatre experience, and we don’t have enough time to build a true foundation. It’s not so easy for them to speak onstage. We have to work more with pantomime or with physical expression, or possibly with recorded text.
A production of Elfriede Jelinek’s Die Schutzbefohlenen in Hamburg gained a lot of attention for putting refugees onstage…
It was interesting, but that’s a challenging, heavy text by Jelinek, even for Germans. I doubt any of the refugees understood it. I can’t imagine inviting people into a play and them not understanding its subject or its context or its references. There’s the danger that people are being used, or that they don’t know in what context they’re being brought into the play. You need to recognise that people are mustering all their courage and not overwhelm them.
What are your goals with this production?
For most of these refugees, the primary thing is survival, or protection, or looking for a different future. A refugee is not a refugee – each has their own personal story. There’s no such thing as the refugee, and we want to convey that complexity. We don’t want to represent the refugees as victims. We’re trying to identify their strength, their power, their skills – and what their perspectives bring for Europe and for Germany. It’s also a journey into capitalist power relationships in Europe. Who decides what? What capitalist values determine our lives? The refugees are also affected by that.