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

The Little Foxes at Berlin’s Schaubühne

Thomas Ostermeier’s revival of American playwright Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes at the Schaubühne begins with a dinner party: A German family, united and happy, entertain an American businessman who promises to make them all very rich. There’s only one problem…

Photo: Arno Declair
Photo: Arno Declair

Brothers Ben and Oscar, who inherited their father’s business, need one more investor for their transatlantic venture. To keep control of the company within the family, they want their sister Regina to convince her sickly husband Horace to be the third investor.

The three siblings are equally ambitious. Ben (played by Moritz Gottwald) is smart, pragmatic and hides his greed with fine talk. Oscar (David Ruland) is not as subtle and, the weakest of the three, has an inferiority complex that manifests itself in his tyrannical abuse of his wife Birdie and son Leo. But Regina (Nina Hoss), whose desire to escape her miserable marriage and the provincial life that her father’s decision not to give her an inheritance has condemned her to, is the most driven of all.

Regina manipulates the people and situations around her with skill, switching from charm to blackmail. Hoss portrays her with ice-queen composure, negotiating percentages and luring her husband home from hospital, but when it becomes clear that Horace has no intention investing, fissures appear. Regina’s brothers hatch a murky plot to get the additional funds, and we realise that once more, Regina is being disempowered by the men around her.

Photo: Arno Declair
Photo: Arno Declair

Indeed, this is a play about women, and the tragic consequences that follow when they are denied self-determination, like Oscar’s aristocratic wife Birdie (Ursina Lardi).

Lardi steals the show with her portrayal of a musically talented woman who has turned to drink, going from breathless enthusiasm to writhing about on a floor – someone whose wings have been clipped by marriage.

But Ostermeier’s decision to move the play from its original 1900 Alabama setting to modern Germany is jarring. It provokes questions such as why do these two women – Regina and Birdie – stay in their marriages? Why does Regina, so intelligent and calculating, not figure out other ways to do what she wants? Why did her father leave her out of her will? While it is believable that maybe one of these things could have happened in a modern German family, as the questions pile up, they interfere with one’s suspension of belief. After all, there is a big difference between the American South over 100 years ago and Germany now.

The skill of the actors distract from these questions of logic and that final moment when Regina stands alone on stage, having gotten what she wants at the cost of her familial relationships, is still potent.

The Little Foxes (Die kleinen Füchse) is on at the Schaubühne, with shows with English surtitles.

Berlin, theatre

Theatre: An Enemy of the People at the Schaubühne

Photo: Arno Declair
Photo: Arno Declair

Having recently seen Public Enemy at the Young Vic in London, I was keen to see what Berlin’s famous Schaubühne would make of Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play.

Ibsen’s play is about a spa town’s chief medical examiner, Dr Thomas Stockmann, who discovers that the town’s baths are toxic. He attempts to publicise his findings, expecting praise, but ends up being labelled an enemy of the people by his mayoral brother, the town’s businessmen, and ultimately the town’s people, who all profit from the baths, leading Stockmann to declare that the majority is wrong, and the public itself is the enemy.

Thomas Ostermeier’s production brings the play to a modern setting.
Indeed, Ibsen’s play could be a mirror for our times of economic crises and environmental issues such as fracking.

However, giving the play a contemporary setting is problematic; with social media and the Internet, it is hard to see why Stockmann is battling to get his findings published in the town’s small paper and calling town meetings when he could achieve his goal with the click of a button.

While, on the one hand, the play does not address its modernity enough, it goes too far in its re-writing of Stockmann’s climactic speech at the town meeting, littering it with contemporary references from Ritalin to the economic crisis to sports shoe slogans. It’s too much, causing the scene to lose its power and the play to lose its original unity.

Furthermore, in the town meeting scene, the lights in the auditorium are turned on and the audience are encouraged to interact in the debate, resulting in a loss of tension and momentum when it should be at its highest. I can appreciate the idea, but inevitably, the people who voice their opinions at these things are either schoolkids or opinionated idiots and their words becoming part of the text causes further fragmentation.

Stefan Stern, who plays Stockmann, seems to completely step out of character during this entire session, before taking up his impassioned speech once again, thereby dissipating the play’s energy and obliterating our suspension of disbelief.

The decision to portray Stockmann as a young man in this production is interesting. He only has a baby (which we see at the beginning of the play, and then mysteriously disappears, never to be seen or mentioned again), not a grown daughter and two sons as in the original. This makes his naivety understandable, but Stern lacks the youthful zeal one would expect. Nick Fletcher, who played Stockmann in The Young VIc’s production, had more energy, and that production rose to a frenzy, whereas this play started well and petered out towards the end.

An Enemy of the People is on at the Schaubühne until December.