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.

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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.