Blindfold in Berlin

The city's annual 'Theatertreffen', where the best of German theatre is on show, reflected the country's subdued mood.
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The Independent Culture
All over Berlin statues of Germany's great are wearing blindfolds as part of the protest against government spending cuts on the arts and sciences. For the poets among them, this could be construed as a kindness, in view of what is being done to some of their classics at this year's Theatertreffen - the annual parade of the best theatre productions in the German-speaking world.

Goethe would certainly have boggled at what the Theater Neumarkt, Zurich, has done to his novel Elective Affinities, in a dramatised version by the young director Stefan Bachmann and his dramaturg, Lars-Ole Walburg, sticking almost exclusively to Goethe's text.

The pastel costumes of the four heroes express their characters very wittily: Eduard (Michael Neuenschwander) in a brown frock-coat as the country gentleman; his wife Charlotte (Susanne-Marie Wrage) very elegant in green; Otto, the captain (Bernhard Bettermann) in a blue crypto-uniform with huge shoulders, and the ingenue Ottilie (Isabelle Menke) in high- buttoned lilac and flat shoes.

The over-formal speech delivery cleverly conveys the underlying tensions, building up to the victory of passion over inhibition in a hilarious scene where the new partners share the task of mopping a floor: Otto rinses and wrings out the floorcloth with military precision, to Charlotte's growing excitement at his masterful behaviour; when the other couple perform the same task, Eduard discovers a playfulness in himself and fools around to make the young Ottilie laugh. Never has a floorcloth been so erotic.

The performance loses its way a little in the final half, with a few crude incursions, such as the count and baroness from De Sade's Boudoir Philosophy, who propound their no-holds-barred sexual creed over the heads of the shell-shocked quartet.

Karl Philipp Moritz's Blunt oder der Gast (Blunt or the Guest) is given a highly atmospheric production by another promising young director, Elmar Goerden, with the Schauspiel Stuttgart company. The story is an old morality tale of the family fallen into destitution, who take in a guest who is in fact the long-lost son, believed dead. The father, overcome by temptation, kills the rich guest, only to discover the truth the next morning. Moritz actually wrote two endings: in the second, the assassination was only a dream. But this was too revolutionary 215 years ago, so this is the premiere of the original version with both endings.

Saint Brecht was represented this year by the Berliner Ensemble's Arturo Ui in the production by the recently beatified Heiner Muller, and with Herr Puntila und sein Knecht Matti in Frank Castorf's production with the Deutsches Schauspielhaus Hamburg.

Arthur Miller's moralising diatribe, The American Clock, on the Depression and the evils of capitalism, came from the Schauspiel Bonn, directed by David Mouchtar-Samorai. I found it toe-curlingly corny, but it has been a runaway success in Bonn. In a Germany made jumpy by a dramatic economic downturn after decades of prosperity, the play has hit a nerve.

The old guard was represented by Peter Zadek (who celebrated his 70th birthday last Sunday), with Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard. In a low-key, lyrical production, Zadek allows the characters to reveal themselves without moral comment. Angela Winkler as Liuba Ranyevskaya is not the compelling central character of most productions, but a weak, hysterical woman. Ulrich Wildgruber as her brother, Leonid, proved a scene-stealer with his portrayal of an upper-class wastrel. Josef Bierbichler, complete with Bavarian accent as the parvenue Lopakhin, nevertheless provided sensitive subtleties.

In all, it was a rather subdued selection this year, perhaps in keeping with the general mood in Germany.