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The return of the Volksbühne

After five years of off-stage drama, René Pollesch is finally taking to the Volksbühne helm. Is the iconic theatre getting back on track?

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Photo: William Minke

After five years of off-stage drama, René Pollesch is finally taking to the Volksbühne helm. Is the iconic theatre getting back on track?

For a ‘people’s theatre’, Volksbühne has seen some pretty hairy moments in the past several years. Well over is the two-and-a-half-decades-long era of Frank Castorf, whose directorial works – lauded and hated in equal measure – became less coherent over time as his vision tunnelled ever further up his seemingly interminable arse.

Gone too are the radically shorter months of Belgian art curator Chris Dercon’s 2017-18 debacle. His days were, it seems, always numbered and began under a cloud of accusations about gentrification and profit-chasing being favoured over experimentation. He may have been criticised for undermining the theatre’s tradition of ensemble theatre and rotating repertoire, but he brought international guest companies into the good old Ossi institution, which actually some people really enjoyed. It was a battle between the flashy new and grumpy old, a Tate-touting international jet-setter taking over from an entitled old visionary.

The scapegoating storm around Dercon quickly darkened into social-media trolling and director and performer resignations, chased by a six-day occupation of the theatre which included members of staff and a 40,000-signature strong petition against him. Mobbing is one thing: Dercon’s countdown to resign was doubtlessly cemented in the middle of that shitstorm when human excrement was deposited for several mornings at his office. Nasty. And not so solidarisch for whoever had to clean it up.

Then came Klaus Dörr, a place-holder intendant who was always going to be leaving in the summer – but in March, he was forced to quit his Volksbühne tenure early. This followed an enquiry by the Senat’s cultural ministry, after damning allegations by 10 women were published in Die Tageszeitung. They described sexual harassment, a hostile work environment and the humiliation of older actresses. Quite an act to follow.

Which brings us to our troubled yet iconic theatre’s new incumbent, René Pollesch. To his immense credit, he has a substantial career in theatre and is no stranger to Volksbühne. Pollesch worked in different theatres in Germany and London, then headed Volksbühne’s satellite stage Prater from 2001 to 2007. He generated a bit of ‘wow’ factor with his politics and settled in as a permanent Volksbühne staff-member – many of his productions gracing the main stage – until 2017 when he exited on Castorf’s heels. In fact, Pollesch was always seen as his boss’s natural heir.

For the record, Pollesch positions himself as anti-capitalist, anti-racist and feminist, so there’s a good chance the programme will retain its punk radicalism. In September, he’s doing two of his own shows: Aufstieg und Fall eines Vorhangs und sein Leben dazwischen, which premieres on September 16, and Die Gewehre der Frau Kathrin Angerer, starting on September 30. Both are in German for now, sadly. But we’re planning to talk to him soon for a peek at what more he’s got in store. Given his and the theatre’s history, in a way Pollesch was the only logical choice to take up the intendant position. If only we’d realised that five years ago.