In the cult TV show Slings and Arrows, set at a Stratford-inspired classical theatre company, Don McKellar plays a Canadian director named Darren Nichols who returns from Berlin "reborn" – and ready to grind the bones of Shakespeare into a fine powder the way the Germans do. He arrives at the first day of a Hamlet rehearsal, a superior snarl on his face, and says to a table of appalled actors: "Let's read this corpse!"
This is the stereotype many Canadian artists and audiences have about German theatre, which has long played the useful role of the innovative or exotic other throughout the English-speaking world. In North American and British theatre, it is said that the written word is worshipped, while in the German theatre, directors are dictators. Similarly, it is thought that in cash-strapped English-language theatres, creators are commercial-minded even in the subsidized sector, while German theatre-makers get to be as self-indulgent as they like as they swim around in unimaginable state largesse like Scrooge McDucks in money bins.
During a recent two-month stint in Berlin, however, where I watched and wrote about the premieres of the season as a guest journalist with a Sunday newspaper called the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, I was struck as much by the similarities between our theatre sectors as by the differences.
Certainly, exploring the repertories of several of the popular, packed (and, yes, very generously funded) "city theatres" in the German capital, I saw types of works that simply don't exist here on our main stages – for instance, director Michael Thalheimer's drastically paired down, extremely still, almost statue-like production of Friedrich Schiller's 1801 Joan of Arc play, The Maid of Orleans, at the Deutsches Theater. (There's a great German word for Thalheimer's cut-to-the-bone approach to the classics: Dramenskeletteur.)
Or, at the most self-consciously radical Volksbühne, the premiere of The Splendours and Miseries of Courtesans by René Pollesch, Germany's poster child for what's known as "postdramatic" theatre. This was essentially a two-hour rant in which five actors debated "the power of the gesture" while smoking cigarettes, re-enacting the dance moves from Jean-Luc Goddard's Bande à part (Band of Outsiders) – and riding a life-size hot-air balloon up and down the fly tower. (I loved it.)
At the same time, however, I was surprised by how many of today's Berlin directors seem to be taking their cue from Broadway musical theatre – and jukebox musicals in particular.
At the Schaubühne, the hip theatre run by director Thomas Ostermeier and located in a tony shopping district in West Berlin, I first saw this style play out in the opening show of its 2013-2014 season: playwright-turned-director Marius von Mayenburg's production of Much Ado About Nothing.
Here, Shakespeare's (anti-)romantic comedy takes place in a nightclub run by emcee Leonato, who begins the show by singing Everybody Knows by Leonard Cohen. (Interestingly enough, Ostermeier's own production of Hamlet also begins with a Canadian composition – from recent Polaris Prize-winners Godspeed You! Black Emperor.)
Much more music follows – for instance, Beatrice, dressed like Marilyn Monroe, purring the suggestive 1959 single, Teach Me Tiger, while Benedick, the man she hates to love and loves to hate, caresses her thigh from inside a tiger suit. Featuring characters in costumes inspired by beach movies, B-movies and classic horror films, Mayenburg's production reminded me of nothing so much as Des McAnuff's 2011 production of Twelfth Night at Stratford, also a pop-filled postmodern parade.
As with that production and most jukebox musicals, however, the songs didn't really integrate into the plot – with one exception. When Jenny König's sad-eyed Hero – used and abused by all the men in the play – sings Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, it fills in a gap in the original script. (Her mother Innogen is one of Shakespeare's most notorious "ghost characters"; mentioned in an early stage direction, she never speaks a line.)
At the Schaubühne, the jukebox approach seems almost a house style. Patrick Wengenroth's production of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant – a play about a broken-hearted bisexual fashion designer that Fassbinder turned into a film in 1971 – featured tunes from James Ingram to Bonnie Raitt to Beyoncé, sung with various degrees of skill and commitment. Indeed, the director – known for his "trash" aesthetic – opens the show by emerging from a cat costume to howl The Cure's Love Cats at length as another tomcat accompanies him on piano.
Much of what I saw at the Schaubühne was similarly characterized by mischievousness and machismo – especially anything involving local star Lars Eidinger, who specializes in unhinged characters. (He was the most frighteningly mad and unlikeable Hamlet I've ever seen.) As a director, Eidinger's production of Romeo and Juliet was totally over the top, with slow-motion, glow-in-the-dark battles and a Lady Capulet who arrives at the ball dressed as a giant vagina. But the balcony scene he orchestrated was ineffably sweet, while Juliet's deconstructed death, slowly doused in blood from a tube, was stunningly gorgeous.
Again though, it was live music that provided the pulse for the show with the electropunk duo the Echo Vamper singing songs (or screaming them) in between scenes. (They sound like Crystal Castles crossed with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.)
Not for the first time, it occurs to me that the European (or European-inspired) art theatre and commercial theatre are closer to one another than most of our serious, sober, subsidized theatre is to either. Of course, I could have learned that from Slings and Arrows too. In one of the seasons, the Germanophile Darren Nichols suddenly develops a passion for musicals, as many the directors whose work I saw in Berlin appear to have. "It's the art form of the common man," he says. "If you want to communicate something with the proletariat, cover it in sequins and make it sing. It's noisy, vulgar and utterly meaningless – I love it!" Perhaps there is a little truth to the stereotype Nichols represents.
Theatre critic J. Kelly Nestruck went to Berlin as the inaugural Canadian participant in the Arthur F. Burns Fellowship.