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Theatres closed? Get the best for free and from home

Hungry for great theatre from Berlin's best stages (and beyond)? Here are great plays to experience from the comfort of your home. All are free, in English or with English subtitles.

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COVID’s second wave may have shuttered theatres (again), but there are still plenty of great plays to see at home — all you need is WiFi. From Berlin to Poland and beyond, we roundup the best January has to offer. Photo: Residenztheater / Superspreader

Berlin’s directors learned a lot from the first lockdown. This time, with theatres likely closed until April, they’ve pivoted to present a diverse selection of online programs for every type of theatre buff: from nostalgic re-runs and live “ghost performances” (set in empty theatres) to Zoom experiments and streams from Germany and beyond. 

There’s an overwhelming amount of theatre currently available online, but where do you start? We’ve highlighted the the best options on offer for English speakers, ranging from black-and-white classics to theatre over Twitter. For newcomers, it’s an excellent way to dive into the German theatre scene. For theatre nerds, it’s a chance to revisit some of stage’s most iconic productions.

Schaubühne and Berliner Ensemble: Brush up on classics

The Schaubühne and the Berliner Ensemble are reaching into their archives, as they did last spring, and revisiting some of their most memorable productions from the past half century. Schaubühne has selected renowned opera and theatre director Peter Stein as the star of its playbill, and will be streaming some of its most legendary performances from the 1970s and 1980s.

At the Berliner Ensemble, Helene Weigelthe – beloved 1950s German stage icon – stars in a black-and-white production of Bertolt Brecht’s Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder. There are also recordings of other Brecht classics, like a 1996 version of Die Tage der Commune and a 1978 version of Coriolanus.

Deutsches Theater, Gorki, HAU and Komische Oper: Modern twists on familiar tales

Both theatres are showing a mix of current productions and live streams of “ghost performances”. At Deutsches Theater, Sebastian Hartmann’s production of Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain), based on the iconic 1920s novel by Thomas Mann, premiered as a livestream. Its sophisticated live camera direction is likely to serve as a model for future theatrical experiments. You can also catch the recording of German adaptation of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya, which premiered at Berlin’s Theatertreffen in 2008.

At HAU, Josep Caballero García’s Who’s Afraid of Raimunda? draws upon Jewish, Arabic and Christian literature for a queer, time-travelling tale that goes back to the Middle Ages.    

Komische Oper has five option for theatre lovers available this month. Best of all might be the French version (with English and German subtitles) of Cinderella, which puts an ironic twist on a classic. Another highlight is a new version of Semele directed by Barrie Kosky, who delivers a touching interpretation of an ancient tale.

For January, Maxim Gorki Theater have resurrected its 2020 production of Hamlet, perhaps the biggest classics of them all. Futureland, a science-fiction documentary piece, will follow, telling the story of a group of minors from Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Guinea and Bangladesh who come to Germany as asylum seekers. 

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Sebastian Hartmann’s production of Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain), based on the iconic 1920s novel by Thomas Mann, premiered as a livestream at Deutsches Theater. Photo: Deutsches Theater

Beyond Berlin: Zoom experiments and interactive trips

The tradition of theatre streaming comes from Eastern Europe and is still popular in Russia today. Despite Germany’s world-renowned artistic reputation, nothing comparable exists here. But you can still discover theatre from the east online with Poland’s Ninateka Theatre-Mediatheque, which is reviving 20th-century classics, including English-subtitled productions by national treasures Tadeusz Kantor and Krzysztof Warlikowski.

There’s plenty more choice for experimental theatre enthusiasts. At Residenztheater in Munich, Zoom attendees are asked to leave their microphones and cameras on during its performance of Superspreader in order to create a more intimate atmosphere – almost like an auditorium where every cough and rustle can be heard. Burgtheater in Vienna is relaunching its Twitter play #Vorstellungsänderung and hosting #Wunschvorstellung once a week – a sort of live storytelling session where the Twitter hashtag serves as the stage and actors like Mavie Hörbiger collaborate with the audience to create a performance.

Last but not least: Freiburg’s totally digital, newly founded Freies Digitales Theater has landed a Corona hit with its online version of Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Zoung Werther). In their take on the classic (the bane of every German school child’s existence), the characters communicate solely through Zoom and WhatsApp, painting a picture of our new reality.