You would think that a play based on what Primo Levi called “the greatest book about German resistance to the Nazis” (Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone, or Jeder stirbt für sich allein) staged at a reputable theatre (Maxim Gorki in Berlin Mitte) would be watchable, if not enjoyable. Not so.
Director Jorinde Dröse has managed to turn an evocative, insightful work into a meaningless farce. The only emotion the play managed to stir was cringe-making dread, akin to something you’d expect to feel whilst watching a particularly bad village panto. This was not the fault of the actors, who, bless them, were trying hard, but the production.
The play lacked focus, attempting to recite the novel’s various story-threads and introducing new characters right up until the end whilst refusing to commit to what should have been the central story – that of the distribution of cards denouncing Hitler by Otto and Anna Quangel. In a recent interview with ExBerliner Magazine, the director said, “I thought the final part of the book, the part where the Quangels are waiting for their inevitable execution in prison, is very long and depressing, so we decided to leave this final part out.” Herein lies the problem – apart reflecting her general idiocy (a play about fascism should not be depressing?) – the comment demonstrates the director’s fear that audience, akin to a kindergarten class, would get bored at the least hint of serious focus. The result is a continuous assault of noise and activity, meaning nothing.
Problems of unity and consistency stretched to tone (the play did not know whether it was a farce or a tragedy), to the question of whether this was a dramatisation or re-enactment of a novel (characters mostly acted out scenes, but whenever the novel seemed too hard to dramatise, they simply read passages out, referring to themselves or other characters in the third person, the curious result of which reminded me of an unartful version of The Guardian’s Digested Read), and style (Frau Rosenthal throws herself out of the window in some weird-dancey sequence, and – I kid you not – characters express their love for each other by singing renditions Damien Rice’s Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.)
Even the subtitles in English were bad – they were by no means complete and either ran ahead or lagged behind the lines being said on stage – how hard is it to organise accurate subtitles?! The stage design, consisting of a sloping floor which characters were perpetually sliding down, could have been interesting, but since everything else was so dire I found it hard to give a shit.
Which brings me to the question – why is theatre in Berlin so bad? I’ve been here for well over two years now, and every single play I‘ve seen (with perhaps the exception of Hamlet at the Schaubühne) has been terrible. Indeed, I witnessed the worst play of my life in this city – Frank Castorf’s Nach Moskau! Nach Moskau! (again, based on the works of Chekhov no less, at Berlin’s famous Volksbühne). That play was so bad that after over two excruciating hours, with no clue as to whether the pretentious shit of a director would honour his audience with a break, I had to walk out mid-act – the only time I have ever done this. Sitting in the bar opposite trying to recover my senses, I saw that there was indeed an intermission about half an hour later; hoards of people dashed to the nearest U-Bahn station…the theatre must have been half empty for the second half. Seriously, they could use that play as a modern torture technique…
I love German books, films and music, but theatre is one of two things that the British do better than the Germans (the other is television – and I would go so far to say that British theatre is the best in the world.) I’ve heard that a fundamental difference between the two countries is that the director carries more weight than the writer in Germany, but surely this cannot account for the creation of such trash.
Maybe the clue to the answer lies in Dröse’s interview, in which she says that to direct in Berlin “you have to be more radical in your work.” This seems to be the problem; a director’s main concern should be the story. He or she should be concerned with a work’s themes, its characters and their journeys, but in attempting to be radical, Berlin directors are only succeeding in producing radically bad plays.
Jeder stirbt für sich allein is on at the Maxim Gorki Theater, Am Festungsgraben 2, Mitte, S+U-Bhf Friedrichstr.