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Theatertreffen 2017 review – ‘bold, challenging and provocative’

Simon Stone's Three Sisters at Theatertreffen 2017 / Berliner Festspiele Simon Stone's Three Sisters at Theatertreffen 2017 / Berliner Festspiele
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Now in its 53rd year, Berlin’s Theatertreffen takes the temperature of contemporary German – and international – theatre.

This year’s festival opens with Simon Stone’s reworking of Three Sisters (Theater Basel, ★★★), in which the director rewrites Chekhov’s play for the lives of today’s affluent yet dysfunctional millennials.

The scale of Lizzie Clachan’s design is incredible: a fully functional, two-tier chalet revolves centre stage and makes the audience members into voyeurs as we peer through its windows at the emotional fallout taking place inside.

Stone has previously brought a fierce clarity to Ibsen and Lorca, but his attempt to revamp Chekhov feels uneven. In this version, the sisters come and go with ease, absconding to their late father’s holiday home in order to escape the crush of city life. The soldiers have gone, replaced by an equally dysfunctional group of men. The duel becomes a suicide. Natasha leaves Andrey. Vershinin becomes the boy next door. It doesn’t quite hold together, despite Clachan’s extraordinary doll’s-house design.

Meanwhile, Sheffield’s Forced Entertainment makes its festival debut with Real Magic (PACT Zollveerin, Essen ★★★★) an absurd mixture of game show, mind-reading act and word-association exercise. Set to a soundtrack of canned laughter and taped applause, the three performers switch between the roles of contestant and game-show host as they each try and fail to guess the random word that the other participant is thinking of.

It’s a confounding yet oddly compelling experience; sometimes the routine slides into hilarity, while at other times its monotony becomes unbearable. The production offers a huge range of potential interpretations. On the one hand, it takes the form of a surreal riff on the hollow spectacle of television entertainment, but it could also be viewed as a darkly comic meditation on power and control.

Milo Rau’s Five Easy Pieces. Photo: The International Institute of Political Murder/ CAMPO Ghent

Five Easy Pieces (The International Institute of Political Murder / CAMPO Ghent ★★★★) is another highlight. Director Milo Rau reconstructs the events leading up to the arrest of Belgian serial killer Marc Dutroux, who in 1996 was found guilty of murdering several children. As if the subject matter wasn’t troubling enough, Rau takes the bold step of casting an ensemble of child actors – between the ages of nine and 13 – in the various roles on-stage.

What starts out as a documentary reconstruction soon becomes a fascinating exploration of the nature of performance itself. The children’s performances are projected in close up on a large screen above the stage as they adopt the various roles of policemen, grieving parents and even the surviving victims of Dutroux.

It’s a challenging yet unmistakably powerful piece of theatre in which Rau uses the interplay of film and live performance to consider the ways that reenactment can confront trauma.

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This year’s Theatertreffen presents a selection of bold, challenging and provocative performances