The figureheads of the new and old Volksbühne square off with two new plays – and two very different aesthetics.
In a kind of dramaturgical face-off , Susanne Kennedy and Frank Castorf premiered their new productions within days of each other in late November and early December. Kennedy, the face of theatre at the new Volksbühne, introduced Women in Trouble, a collage of texts found on the internet and lip-synced by actors wearing latex masks. Castorf, meanwhile, took his old Volksbühne aesthetic to the Berliner Ensemble with an adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel Les Misérables, staged with a mix of veteran Castorf actors and Berliner Ensemble regulars. Kennedy’s production was mostly reviled by critics for being emotionless and pretentious, while Castorf’s elicited ambivalent frustration as a work whose virtuoso actors had great moments but were ultimately dragged down by the length of the evening – seven and a half hours for the premiere, miraculously slashed to a mere six-hour length by the time we saw it just two nights later.
Let’s start with Les Misérables, Hugo’s epic about repentant ex-convict Jean Valjean ruthlessly pursued by police inspector Javert. Are there actors often shouting for no reason? Check. Repetitious exchanges of dialogue that sound improvised? Check. Interpolations of tenuously related texts? Check. Video images of actors beamed on a screen while the audience’s direct view of them is often obscured? Of course. Forgive a question, though: Why are these techniques appropriate here? They have no bearing on the themes or formal aspects of Hugo’s text. They’ve just been Castorf’s shtick for 18 years, so here we go again.
Despite its chilly reception, Women in Trouble constitutes a welcome assault on Castorf’s stagnant directorial habits. Kennedy’s production may require patience and altered expectations of what a theatrical event should be, but her staging techniques complement each other and form a cohesive vision that’s all her own. She collected texts from the internet, the Bible, films and other sources and divided them among various representations of a character named Angelina Dreem. Dreem would appear to be an actress suffering from cancer, but, as is usually the case with this kind of textual collage, the search for a clearly defined plot and characters will only result in frustration. In their place, Women in Trouble offers images and soundbites that touch on various contemporary phenomena: modernity’s technological sterility; the estrangement that humanity has inflicted upon itself through its fetishisation of technology; the frustrated longing for happiness and human connections; and the coexistence of discontinuity and repetition in the way we perceive ourselves through media. Given these themes, the use of text fragments, latex masks and lip-synced dialogue shouldn’t – and don’t – seem like gimmicks on the part of a director hoping to be acclaimed as an auteur; they’re just smart, apt, effective choices. And emotional ones, too: the subdued line delivery was often haunting.The figures felt like lobotomised patients with a flickering consciousness of their condition. Not dissimilar to us, perhaps, with our on-again-off-again awareness of the dysfunction around us and within us.
Women in Trouble ***** Jan 20, 18:00, Feb 2, 20:00 (in English), Volksbühne | Les Misérables ** Feb 22, 23, 18:00, (in German), Berliner Ensemble