A standing army of actors keeps German theaters on the move

BERLIN – One of Germany’s best-known theatrical exports is Regietheater, a directing approach that grants directors divine powers to rew...


BERLIN – One of Germany’s best-known theatrical exports is Regietheater, a directing approach that grants directors divine powers to rewrite and reinterpret plays as they see fit. The aesthetic sensibilities, philosophical preoccupations, and egos of the directors here help set the tone and define the identity of the country’s most prominent theaters. But make no mistake: Germany’s rich theatrical landscape is supported by the hundreds of actors employed full-time by the country’s 142 public theaters, as well as by several private theaters.

This truth has never struck me with such force as it has in the past 20 months during the coronavirus pandemic, in and out of containment, with all the hygiene and distancing measures that come with it.

One of the main reasons the theater here has been able to rebound after repeated shutdowns is that Germany does have a standing army of actors, most of whom continued to receive most of their salaries even during the months where the scenes were dark, thanks to a government program for workers on leave. It also meant players on hand to digital theater experiences during confinements and for live performances in cleverly modified formats once the cinemas reopened. Now, as theaters begin to limit attendance again to promote social distancing, the actors they employ are ready to perform for a limited audience.

Long before the pandemic upset much of our daily reality, household players were appreciated for their flexibility. Most of them should be dramatic chameleons, moving from leading to supporting roles in plays by Shakespeare or Sarah Kane depending on the circumstances. The number of actors in an entire theater can vary wildly. In Berlin, the Deutsches Theater has 37 full-time actors, while the neighboring Volksbühne only employs 12. Most ensemble actors are used to grueling schedules and a variety of roles.

Joachim Meyerhoff, a member of the capital’s Schaubühne since 2019, is one of Berlin’s most recently anointed acting gods. Moliere and Virginie despentes, Meyerhoff, one of 30 actors from the Schaubühne ensemble, starred in the late November premiere of “Eurotrash”, An adaptation of a novel by Christian Kracht which was a bestseller this year in Germany.

Meyerhoff brings a nervous, tense energy to the autobiographical narrator of Kracht, a middle-aged son who tries to connect with his estranged mother on a dysfunctional road trip from Zurich to the Alps. The director of the show, Jan Bosse, stages this quirky comedy between friends aboard a small yacht on a no-frills stage. It’s a delightfully absurd touch that visually enlivens an overly long and dramatically thin evening, despite the towering central performance.

For two hours without an intermission, a lot is thrown overboard, including colostomy bags, bottles of vodka, and thousands of Swiss francs, but Meyerhoff’s painful and unemotional performance as a male child struggling for connecting with a mentally ill mother remains the emotional center of the evening. As a stony, alcoholic, and self-destructive matriarch, Angela Winkler is unable to invest her character with enough emotional undertone that we really care about the parent-child relationship. In the end, finding the actress on stage in 2021 is in itself more moving than her actual performance: Winkler belonged to the Schaubühne ensemble in the 1970s, during the long tenure of artistic director Peter Stein. Seeing this 77-year-old woman next to Meyerhoff should be reminded of Schaubühne’s long tradition of excellence in acting.

Less than a week later, I rediscovered the great female performance that had escaped me at the Schaubühne in southern Germany, in an unusual production by Friedrich Dürrenmatt “Visit which stars Belarusian-Israeli actress Evgenia Dodina, a member of the recently premiered ensemble at the Schauspiel in Stuttgart.

“La Visite”, one of the few post-war German-language plays to achieve international success, has had many lives since its premiere in 1956 in Zurich. It was adapted for the big screen and made into the opera and musical Kander and Ebb. Shortly before the pandemic hits, an ill-conceived version of Tony Kushner performed at the National Theater in London. Yet the Stuttgart production, by the theater’s artistic director, Burkhard C. Kosminski, is perhaps the most unusual of all these incarnations.

Dürrenmatt’s perverse plot, about a wealthy woman who returns to her impoverished hometown and offers to make the villagers rich in return for lynching the man who wronged her long ago, has often been interpreted as an allegory of post-war European life in the shadow of the National Socialist. crimes. This reading is made explicit by this fascinating and frustrating production, in which the main character of the play is a Jewish woman whose expulsion from the city in 1940 saved her from death in a concentration camp.

When she meets her old flame (Matthias Leja, another of the 31 actors in the whole theater), they nervously flirt in German and Hebrew. As Kosminski reimagines the background of the main character, Dodina periodically leaves the room to recount, in Hebrew, her own biography as well as the war experiences of her mother and grandmother fleeing the Nazis across the country. Central Asia. Dodina is fascinating in the play’s vengeful fury, as well as her personal monologues, but it’s hard to see how the different elements add up. In the end, the modified and abridged text of Dürrenmatt and the family reminiscences of the actress make for a strange match, despite the engaged and captivating portrait of Dodina.

The performance of “The Visit” I attended was the last to be sold out. The next day, much of southern Germany reduced the number of licensed cinemas. Stuttgart is doing slightly with 50% of its capacity; in the nearby city of Munich, most cultural events can take place with just a quarter. But for the most part, the theaters and their cast persevered as best they could while performing, once again, to a comically small audience.

Two hundred and twenty masked spectators were allowed into the 880-seat Residenztheater in Munich for a recent performance of “Missing dreams», A trilogy of plays by Dutch author Judith Herzberg which is a sprawling saga of an extended Jewish family in Amsterdam. Memories of the Holocaust and lost loved ones loom in the background, but Herzberg is more interested in showing the vibrancy of these characters and their complex relationships than in suggesting that they are hopelessly crippled by trauma. Director Stephan Kimmig’s five-hour production resonates with a sort of epic intimacy that the theater has honed under the direction of its new artistic director, Andreas Beck. The great dramatis personae of “Absent Dreams” are performed exclusively by members of the 50-member theater ensemble, the largest in Germany. Throughout the long evening, 15 of them populate the vast stage, some in multiple roles.

However, beyond the accomplished performances, which are too numerous to list, the production achieves a remarkable cohesion of the almost conspiratorial sense of the relationship generated by a group of actors who played side by side, in the main and secondary roles, night after night. and in game after game.

Watching the protagonists of Herzberg come to life, I got to see the driving force behind the powerful German theatrical tradition up close. Throughout the pandemic, this dynamo has proved unstoppable.

Visit. Directed by Burkhard C. Kosminski. Schauspiel Stuttgart, until January 30.
Missing dreams. Directed by Stéphane Kimmig. München Residenztheater, until February 23.
Eurotrash. Directed by Jan Bosse. Schaubühne Berlin, until January 2.

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