Stopping off for some sex, or something of that elk

NEW STAGES: BERLIN A first-time visitor to the festival could be forgiven for thinking that the Germanspeaking world is obsessed by sex
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The Independent Culture
Despite all the mutterings about the belt-tightening needed to meet the city's colossal reconstruction costs, the Berlin Senate still gave the go-ahead for this year's theatre festival, the 32nd. Nevertheless, the budget was drastically reduced and largely supplied at the 11th hour by some generous sponsoring and adroit negotiation with the host theatres.

So yet again, for two weeks in May, Berliners have had the chance to see what the Theatertreffen jury considers to be the 10 best productions of the year in German-speaking countries. This year they consist of an unusually high proportion of new(ish) plays, and only three classics: The Wild Duck, Titus Andronicus and Horvath's Faith, Hope and Charity. Where most of the new plays are concerned, a first-time visitor to the festival could be forgiven for thinking that the German-speaking world is obsessed by sex, often in its most bizarre and violent forms.

The zaniest example was the Austrian Elfriede Jelinek's Rastatte oder Sie Machens Alle (Roadhouse or They All Do It), directed by wildboy Frank Castorf. This time, however, he was not directing his "home" theatre company in east Berlin, the Volksbuhne, but the Deutsches Schauspielhaus Hamburg.

A provocative and shocking variation on Cosi fan tutte (probably for the first time in the Theatertreffen's history, no minors were admitted to this play), the story - such as it is - is of two couples who have stopped at a service area on the autobahn. The two women (Marion Breckwoldt and Inka Friedrich) have arranged a sexual assignation in the toilets with - yes, you guessed it - a bear and an elk.

The strength of this production is the explosive mix and match of Jelinek's witty and anarchic text and Castorf's directorial style, culminating in a performance of awesome vitality. The world premiere of this play at the Akademietheater in Vienna last year, directed by Claus Peymann, was played "realistically" - an impossible enterprise, I would have thought.

The two men (Stephan Bissmeier and Bernhard Schutz) recite Goethe's The Sorcerer's Apprentice, at first like schoolboys, then, gradually gripped by the drama of the tale, to great comic effect. The bear and the elk (Carolin Mylord and Gustav-Peter Wohler) have a philosophical discussion; later the elk enters alone, trailing a Barbie doll on wheels behind him. After pulling the doll's knickers down, he whirls it round his head. When the awesome foursome ultimately begin their athletic coupling in the loos, it is not the animals, but the two men who partner their wives. The performance ends with a porn film on TV (hence no minors) and a huge effigy of Jelinek herself, reciting a weird epilogue.

As usual, Jelinek punches her ideas (mostly aiming below the belt) at the audience: female emancipation, the dehumanising effect of this mechanistic age, the rape of nature... But in Castorf she has met her match: he calls her bluff, and the result has the powerful sexual charge of The Taming of the Shrew. A magnificent evening of theatre, if you can open your mind wide enough. Hats off to the actors, who give it everything they've got.

Franz Xaver Kroetz, in Der Drang (The Urge) (directed by Kroetz himself with the Kammerspiele from Munich), is on familiar territory, looking at the Bavarian (petty) bourgeoisie. Parodying village-hall theatre, using crudely painted backdrops and a fast-moving style of very short scenes, he quickly sets the scene bringing events to a conclusion that is as inevitable as it is cliched.

A young couple run a garden centre that sells funeral wreaths. The wife's brother arrives, having just been released from a two-year prison sentence for flashing. The husband's attitude to him, and that of the woman employee, soon beg the question: "Who is the real pervert?"

Like some Bavarian Mike Leigh, Kroetz turns a cruel eye on the foibles of the lower orders, a viewpoint that can leave a nasty taste in the mouth. The highly charged marital squabbles while planting pansies over a fresh grave, the one-liners and frequent sex scenes ultimately become monotonous.

The finest of the new plays was Tankred Dorst's Herr Paul, in the Berlin Deutsches Theater production directed by Michael Gruner. What starts as a parable, ends up not quite living up to expectations. Two old people - Herr Paul (Kurt Bowe) and his sister Luise (Christine Schorn) - live in a rundown old building which the new young yuppie owner Helm (Daniel Morgenroth) wants to "develop". There is the clash between different value systems, but the anticipated sentimental ending of the triumph of the old and conversion of the young to more humane values, although present, arrives in a startling form. Helm's dippy girlfriend, Lilo (Petra Hartung), sees Herr Paul run over in the street. But suddenly, Herr Paul is back.

Helm finally loses his rag, to the extent of hacking Herr Paul to bits and dragging the pieces off the stage. Within minutes, Herr Paul ambles in again... Magnificent performances all round, especially from the legendary Kurt Bowe in the title role of this shabby, tolerant and kindly old man who just won't lie down.

Della Couling