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Theatertreffen 2018 review – ‘bold, brave and risk-taking reinventions’

Frank Castorf's Faust at Theatertreffen. Photo: Thomas Aurin
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German theatre has always shown a willingness to radically reimagine the classics. Because of this restless experimentation, the regietheater tradition can look as though it’s in a permanent state of revolution, with directors burning down old traditions in order to blaze a trail towards new ones. It’s this tension between destruction and reinvention that encapsulates the 55th Theatertreffen, Berlin’s annual theatre festival.

Frank Castorf does everything short of razing the auditorium with his mammoth and maddening Faust (Volksbuhne, ★★★★). The former Volksbuhne director has been stirring up trouble with his freewheeling, mixed media productions for nearly half a century, and he’s going out with a bang. This 66-year-old enfant terrible delivers a feverish, rambling and ghoulishly alluring seven-hour assault on Goethe.

From inside designer Aleksandar Denic’s revolving funhouse set, Castorf pursues his fourteen-strong ensemble with roving cameras and real-time projection. It’s a production bursting at the seams with excursions into the Algerian War, Emile Zola and jibes at Castorf’s one-time successor, Chris Dercon. Still, this is history in the making: a defiant swansong displaying imaginative freedom and political bite.

Karin Henkel’s Loot Women War (Schauspielhaus Zurich, ★★★★) is an altogether more restrained and haunting affair, yet it strikes a no less combative note in its feminist reimagining of Euripides’ The Trojan Women and Iphigenia in Aulis.

Set to a dissonant binaural soundscape, we listen through headphones and roam designer Muriel Gerstner’s multi-part stage. As we encounter Cassandra, Andromache and Hecuba, we bear witness as they speak truth to power in a sequence of monologues that confront gender, violence and the sacrifice of female bodies in times of war. Kate Strong delivers fierce performance as Helena,  spitting venom at the male warmongers unfortunate enough to cross her path.

Christopher Ruping’s Drums in the Night. Photo: Julian Baumann

But it’s Christopher Ruping’s ingenious deconstruction of Brecht’s Drums in the Night (Munchner Kammerspiele, ★★★★★) that steals the show. Ruping takes Brecht’s tale of Kragler (Christian Lober), a POW who returns home to find his country in the grip of a Spartacist uprising, and puts it through the shredder.

Ruping’s cast re-enact the play’s original performance conditions against a reconstruction of the debut productions’ painted set. The puppet-like performances teeter on the edge of farce, until the pretence collapses and Ruping tears it – technicians smash the set and a wood-chipper devours the splintered chunks.

But Rupling doesn’t stop there. He delivers two possible endings – one in keeping with Brecht, whereby Kragler abandons the revolution to join his lover, Anna (Wiebke Mollenhauer), and a revisionist version, in which Kragler leaves love behind to take his place amongst the revolutionaries.


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Bold, brave and brash reinventions of the classics display risk-taking imagination and political anger at the 55th Theatertreffen