art, Berlin, Life in Berlin, theatre

Lippy at the Schaubühne Berlin

Lippy, a theatre piece based on a true incident that occurred in Leixlip, Ireland, where four women committed suicide by starving themselves to death, starts with a postshow discussion.

LIPPY by Dead Centre, Direction: Ben Kidd/Bush Moukarzel Photo: Jeremy Abrahams
LIPPY by Dead Centre, Direction: Ben Kidd/Bush Moukarzel, Photo: Jeremy Abrahams

I was so hungover, I wasn’t sure if this was part of the show (it is) or whether I was late and had somehow missed the play. It was possible: I had already turned up to review it without something to write on, or with.

So while the reviewer next to me furiously scribbled notes in his little book, I decided to rely solely on my wits and the power of my pounding head. The theatre, at least, was nice and dark Besides, how hard could it be? I’ve reviewed loads of plays…

The problem was, like its subject matter, Lippy is a confounding. Why did Frances Mulrooney and her three nieces, whom she raised, choose to end their lives this way? Why did they shred all their personal documents? A play that tried to answer these questions would be putting words into their mouths, and Lippy is intelligently aware of this conundrum.

So in the play’s sinister and expressionist imagining of the women’s last days, starving to death in the same house, much emphasis is put on the impossibility of ever achieving clarity. Words overlap, get lost, become distorted. People speak without moving their lips, or move their lips only to have different people speak for them. The play constantly disorientates and disturbs, thwarting any attempt to grasp a coherent meaning. Yet, I continued my attempt to grasp, leaning forward in my seat – like that would help. The whole thing was enough to make my head hurt – more than it already did.

The play ends with a mega Beckettian soliloquy delivered from the lips of the last living woman in the house. It is dark, and impactful – especially after almost an hour of not receiving a clear sentence – leaving the theatre in stunned silence.

An affecting play, not to be watched when hungover.

Lippy was on at Berlin’s Schaubühne as part of the Festival International New Drama (FIND) 7-17 April 2016.

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Berlin, Life in Berlin, theatre

The Last Supper at the Schaubühne Berlin

The Last Supper by Ahmed El Attar, currently on as part of the Schaubühne’s Festival International New Drama (FIND), is a fascinating glimpse into the Egyptian bourgeois.

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Although the long table dominating centre stage is a nod to the Biblical Last Supper, the similarities soon end. Sure, the play starts with two men praying, but this is juxtaposed with another character singing Dylan’s Blowin in the Wind in Arabic. This curious mix of Near East meets West continues throughout the play, with characters taking selfies and arguing about Instagram, Emmental, and where the shopping is best: London or America?

The attempt to compare one city with a 52-state nation is of course shallow, illustrating the characters’ ambivalent relationship to the West. They have taken on our materialism, but at the same time, a character simply called ‘The General’ announces: America, and Iran, and Sweden, want to bring this country down, using Facebook.

These perceptions tickled the European audience most, and although they are hilarious, they are also disturbing. As the supper progresses, and animal carcasses are laid out on the table, so does the consumerist talk. Characters discuss servants like they are objects to be traded, the General refers to everyone as vermin, and Hassan, who is meant to be an artist,  reveals an alarming capacity for violence, including rape. The atmosphere is decadent, aggressive, nihilistic.

There is something missing here. In fact, there is someone missing. That important twelfth person, who, at this last supper, is Nadia. She keeps being called to the table but never appears.  Has she decided to sit this nauseus gathering out? Is she ill? Has she died? No one goes to check. Her absence reminds us of what else is absent at this table: Humanity.

The Festival International New Drama (FIND) is on at the Schaubuhne from 7 – 17th April 2016.

Berlin, Life in Berlin, theatre

Fear Industry at the English Theatre Berlin

Fear Industry is not really a play. Rather, it is a montage of movement and sound building on one theme; fear.

Fear Industry at the English Theatre Berlin
Photo by Achim Wieland

Performers Marios Ioannou and Elena Kallini skillfully switch between multiple characters in quick succession – a little boy called George, a politician with speeches about security, a mother watching her child play, a game show host – illustrating just how much our lives and society are governed by fear. The fear of wrinkles, the fear of swine-flu, the fear of flying.

The characters dance around a tightrope in the middle of the stage, accompanied by mezzo-soprano Marianna Pieretti. These people are constantly pulled, tied down by threads of anxiety. As one character says, “Birds and butterflies were meant to fly, but humans have to stay grounded.” By holding up a mirror to the ways in which our society is built on fear – from the focus on wealth to the decision to go to war – the performance encourages us to reconnect with child we once were. The child who, fearless, stuck their fingers into the lion’s cage.

However, the composition itself never manages to completely take off, hovering as it does, somewhere between drama and performance. I would have preferred it to commit more strongly to one or the other. As it is, the characters lack real depth or development, which fails to make it a satisfying drama, while the performance element is not pushed as far as it can go. Chekov famously said, “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.” The same rule could apply to a tightrope; if it is on stage, someone should walk it.

An interesting concept that could have been braver.

Fear Industry is on at the English Theatre Berlin (Fidicinstraße 40, 10965 Berlin) until Saturday 20th February 2016.

 

art, Berlin, events, Life in Berlin, people, theatre

Palast-Talk: British Evening

Friedrichstadt-Palast – the glitzy show palace in Mitte – recently hosted an illuminating discussion about German and British theatre.

Berndt Schmidt and Alistair Spalding, Friedrichstadt-Palast
Photo: Sascha Radke, Eventpress, courtesy of Friedrichstadt-Palast

The talk focused on the differences between British and German theatre. Alistair Spalding, Artistic Director of Sadler’s Wells in London, observed that the British prefer to be entertained, while the Germans think theatre has to be difficult and painful. Also, British theatre is commercial, whereas German theatres are mostly subsidised.

This inevitably led to a discussion about the difference between art and entertainment. Does art have to be political? Dr Berndt Schmidt, General Director of Friedrichstadt-Palast, joked that although many people do not count what the Palast does as art, it must be – because they get funding for it.

He also stated that although the shows at Friedrichstadt-Palast were not political, the theatre’s attitude was open and tolerant. This is a fallacy: Everything is political. Even the choice not to engage in politics and just entertain people is political. It is a choice that says, the status quo is fine and we do not feel a responsibility or need to question it. That entertainment is more important than politics. It is conservatism of the highest degree.

The Palast’s current home on Friedrichstrasse was the last historic landmark building constructed in German Democratic Republic, in 1984. Under communist rule, the Palast’s shows were also used to entertain and placate. In Setting the Scene: Perspectives on Twentieth-Century Theatre Architecture, historian Florian Urban writes that the Palast hosted a selection of the regime’s most popular television variety shows, including Ein Kessel Buntes (A Cauldron of Potpurri); “the Saturday-night entertainment show with which East German rulers had, since 1972, attempted to win the acceptance of their subjects.”

The Palast’s shows supported the ruling order then, just as it supported the ruling order during the Nazi era, and it is – by choosing not to question contemporary society and politics – doing the same today. Luckily, we live in an open, democratic society, which is, apparently, the ‘general attitude’ of the Palast.

But how does the Palast’s ‘open and tolerant’ attitude manifest itself? When the director of Berlin’s largest theatre was asked whether he actively sought to bring diverse voices from the city into his production-process, Berndt replied that he was not thinking about how many women or coloured faces there were in his theatre; he was just hiring people he thought were cool.

If you are not consciously thinking about tolerance, openness, and diversity, you cannot have an open, tolerant and diverse attitude. People naturally choose to work and socialise with people who are similar to them (see Scientific American’s article on how people socialise, or Business Insider’s article on the fact that managers hire people who remind them of themselves). Berndt is a white, middle-class man. If he is just picking people he thinks are cool, he is most certainly picking people who share his background or attitudes, which is not promoting diversity or tolerance but perpetuating a system of privilege and bias.

This system is the reason that no black actors were nominated for the Oscars this year. It is the reason that female hires in orchestras have risen by half since the introduction of ‘blind’ auditions for orchestras, where musicians must play behind screens that conceal their identities.

It is the reason the director of Ireland’s National Theatre came under fire at the end of last year when he announced a line up of 18 men and just two women writers and directors. In response to the criticism, he tweeted: “I don’t and haven’t programmed plays on a gender basis. I took decisions based on who I admired and wanted to work with.”

To deny gender-bias with such a line-up is ludicrous. The people he admired and wanted to work with were people like him – men. The work he connected to was the work that related to his experience – as a white, privileged male. It was only when he was made to think about it – by a counter movement supported by Meryl Streep and Wim Wenders – that he recanted his words. But his comment is one the Director of Friedrichstadt-Palast echoed: I’m just choosing people I think are cool. As a woman in the toilets said afterwards; “Well whoopee for him.”

Berlin, music, theatre

Lukas, A Musical at TiltHAUS

Lukas is a musical with a difference; modern, minimalist, set in Berlin.

Lukas, a musical

The story centers around one decision; should Lukas leave his Berlin home and follow his girlfriend Olivia to Australia? Writers Nicole Ratjen, Ben Southam and Tom Hanley wanted to “explore the many facets of making a decision, simple and complex, familiar and distant,” and in this, they succeed.

They give every character in the story a voice – a song – and as these voices build to a crescendo, you realise just how complex making this decision is. The songs themselves are funny and touching, with tangible references such as playing Fifa on playstation.

Sarah Milligan (as Olivia) hit every note with a voice as powerful as any you would find on Broadway, Ben Southam (Lukas) gave a nuanced performance, and Blake Worrell convincingly played Lukas’s depressive father.

The music, provided by Laura Peterson (keyboard), Kenny Stanger (guitar), Stuart Nelson (alto saxophone) and Jano González  (bass), adds a layer of mood and feeling to each character, making the show an emotional experience.

But although the play manages to be emotionally complex, it falls down dramaturgically, managing to reach crisis, but never climax and resolution. Overall, however, it is a short, sweet experience, set in the intimate performance space of Berlin’s Factory, Germany’s largest start-up campus.

For more information, read Interview with Ben Southam: How to write a Musical in your Lunch Breaks.

Lukas, A Musical, is on at TiltHAUS (Rheinsbergerstr. 76/77, 10115 Berlin) tonight and tomorrow night.

Berlin, history, Life in Berlin, science, theatre, Uncategorized

Transcendence at the English Theatre Berlin

A hundred years ago, on 25th November 1915, Einstein proved his general theory of relativity, transforming our understanding of physical reality. Apt timing then, for Robert Marc Friedman’s Transcendence, a play about Einstein, at the English Theatre Berlin.

Transcendence, English Theatre Berlin
Photo by Gerald Wesolowski, courtesy of the English Theatre Berlin

The play transcends the barriers of space and time – running from 1911 to the second world war, spanning from Berlin, Prague, Zurich and Sweden to the USA – as it spins together three story strands.

One strand is the relationship between Albert Einstein and his fellow physicist Max Planck. Einstein and Planck came from vastly different backgrounds, with little in common but physics and music. Although their friendship builds despite their differences, it ultimately – in the face of a volatile political landscape (including the first and second world wars) – fails.

Another focus is the relationship between Einstein and Kafka, who almost certainly met, although no record exists of their encounters. This narrative highlights the similarities between science and art – both men use creativity and imagination in their work to search for underlying realities. Is there, they ponder, a moral equivalent to general relativity?

And finally, there are the maneuverings in Sweden concerning the Nobel Prize in Physics, influenced by politics and people who were reluctant to acknowledge Einstein and his theory (they eventually awarded him the prize for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect, not for relativity = fail).

The actors (Ben Maddox, Logan Verdoorn and Max Wilkinson) approach these iconic characters in a realistic way, even lending them a comic aspect. Despite this, the play gets bogged down by its weighty subject matter. It presents too much information over too broad a scope; although each story-line is fascinating, each could have been a full-length play in itself.

Overall, it manages to string together an illuminating picture of how some of Europe’s most fascinating figures struggled to transcend harsh realities during the most volatile period of the continent’s history.

Transcendence is on at the English Theatre Berlin (Fidicinstr. 40, 10965 Berlin) until 30th November 2015.

Berlin, Life in Berlin, theatre

Mars One – Venus Zero at the English Theatre Berlin

Mars One – Venus Zero is the funny, provocative one-and-a-half-man show currently on at the English Theatre Berlin.

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The ‘half-man’ refers to a woman, Gem Andrews, and if you’re offended by the suggestion that a woman is worth half a man, prepare to be further shocked, because this play is all about Mike (played by Richard Gibb), an anti-feminist – or as he refers to himself, a meninist.

In fact, Mike thinks planet Earth is becoming so overrun by feminists that he’s preparing his audition video for the “MARS ONE” space program. Under the red glare of the recording light, we get an insight into his views and anger. This might sound intense, and at times it is – but mostly, it’s funny. The comedy arises darkly from Richard Gibb’s sincere portrayal of a man lacking potency, insight and intelligence.

Between recording sessions, Gem Andrews provides the emotional score to Mike’s story with haunting, soothing songs. These contrast with Mike’s on-screen persona – not just the video he’s recording – but his tweets and browsing activities which are projected on stage, provoking gasps and mutterings from the audience. It’s one thing to have such content out there in the mush of the Internet, quite another to bring it into the space of the theatre.

As the layers of this complex production click together, so does Mike’s story and we begin to see that he is not just an angry red alien – but deeply, touchingly human.

Mars One – Venus Zero playing at the English Theatre Berlin (Fidicinstraße 40, 10965 Berlin): at 8 pm tonight and tomorrow.