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A possibility missed: Houellebecq’s “The Possibility of an Island”

Robert Borgmann’s Berliner Ensemble adaptation of bad-boy French novelist Michel Houellebecq's 2005 best-seller leaves you feeling like hopping off the island before all the possibilities come to the forefront. Catch it Oct 26-27, Nov 13-14.

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Photo by JR Berliner Ensemble. Catch The Possibility of an Island at the Berliner Ensemble on Oct 26 and Nov 24 with English surtitles.

There’s no doubting the continuing popularity of bad-boy French novelist Michel Houellebecq in cultured, intellectual German circles – two plays based on his books, 1994’s Whatever and 2005’s The Possibility of an Island, premiered this autumn at two of Berlin’s largest theatres, Deutsches Theater and Berliner Ensemble respectively. While the former attempted a deconstructivist take on the polarising author, Robert Borgmann’s piece at the BE is a more or less faithful adaptation (with a notable digression) – and clocks in at an overindulgent two hours and 40 minutes. Houellebecq’s story of comedian Daniel and his two clones begins with a monologue. An incredibly long monologue in which Wolfgang Michael appears in a tattered white rubber ruminating questions of existence while seemingly growing weary of said existence. Multiple times. The story flips from scenes of “Neo-Menschen” to a “normal” 47-year-old Daniel (Peter Moltzen) flailing from a first relationship with a tabloid journalist (a very cool and stylish Constanze Becker) to a 22-year-old actress and model (Cynthia Micas) as Daniel comes to realise how futile it all is. And while the “present-day” timeline does a respectable job of identifying with all the pathetic characters in Daniel’s world, it’s the more surreal, futuristic clone world that drags on and on. Misshapen rubber female figures, people in white, elastic bodysuits and a strange little girl that says next to nothing do little to whip up excitement and feel like bland repetition. At one point, Michael reappears to deliver another longwinded monologue about the utility of “images”, this time in a Nazi uniform for some indiscernible reason. The audience is snapped out of the doldrums at least once during the course of the evening when the performers inevitably break the fourth wall (it is the Berliner Ensemble, after all) and engage the audience in a discussion on art. Far from the cringey, audience-squirming affair it sounds, the actors pull this off in a highly entertaining manner. It’s normally easy to think: love him or hate him, everyone’s got an opinion about Houellebecq. But on this version of the island you feel like hopping off before all the possibilities come to the forefront. A bit of fat-trimming here would have gone a long way. It feels ironic to hold Houellebecq of all people to rigid beauty standards – but this production could do with some dramaturgic liposuction.

The Possibility of an Island | Berliner Ensemble, Mitte. Oct 26-27, Nov 13-14 (with English surtitles Oct 26 and Nov 14).