Sewer rats

Director Michael Thalheimer whittles down Maxim Gorky’s 1902 "Nachtasyl" (The Lower Depths) to 90 minutes, 13 characters and zero shreds of hope. And lots of hanky panky among sewer-dwelling lowlifes. Catch the despair at Schaubühne June 16 and 17.

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Photo by Katrin Ribbe

If the Schaubühne’s new production of Maxim Gorky’s Nachtasyl has a takeaway message, it might be this: even in the deepest throes of misery, humans are still horny bastards. Because no matter how bleak or cruel or gross things get, these characters continue to shag. Not very happily, true. But vigorously, frequently and unabashedly.

Gorky’s play (its English title is The Lower Depths), first performed in 1902, is a portrait of squalor, a cross-section of societal scum. His characters are drunkards, prostitutes, liars and murderers, and director Michael Thalheimer traps them in a claustrophobic, tunnel-like set. It’s essentially a sewer pipe – an effect enhanced by the rivers of rust-brown liquid that pour down from above (those in the first row may want to bring a splatter guard). The actors have just enough room to stand. When they want to exit, they have to crawl up the slippery, curved wall. Sliding into this world is easy. Escaping it? That’s another story.

Thalheimer has whittled down Gorky’s text to 90 minutes, 13 characters and zero shreds of hope. Wearing dirtied and bloodied rags, the ensemble blurs into a depraved mass. Their preferred register is dehumanised hysteria, staring the audience straight on and screaming their lines. Like caged animals, they growl and cackle and bellow and hiss and roar and caw. Thalheimer rejects all mawkishness, sometimes to wonderfully chilling effect. Take Jule Böwe, a freaky revelation as den mother Vasilisa. Dressed in fishnets and a red bra, her blond hair a staticky mess, Böwe crawls on all fours and bleats like a goat. Another standout is Alina Stiegler, who opens the show by repeatedly wailing “ich sterbe!” – and then hacking up a bunch of blood. But ultimately, all these dead stares, shrill cries, exaggerated grimaces and vulgar pantomimes – characters jack themselves off, get jacked off and take each other from behind – add up to empty brutality. The world is mean. Despair rules. There is no mercy. We get it.

And for the show’s full runtime, an electro beat pulses in the background, always with the same numb rhythm. It doesn’t change. It doesn’t go anywhere. It doesn’t let up. It’s a throbbing headache: nihilism in auditory form. This, this is the song that never ends.

Nachtasyl Jun 16-17, 23-25, 20:00 | Schaubühne, Kürfurstendamm 153, Charlottenburg, U-Bhf Adenauerplatz