THEATRE / Auf Wiedersehen Brecht?: The Berliner Ensemble has rejected its founder and raison d'etre, Bertolt Brecht. Aaron Hicklin reports

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'Ask him why he's been sacked', a voice hisses at me across the long wooden table. There is a pause to digest this small outburst, but the man in question, a redundant dramaturg responsible for Brecht theory at the Berliner Ensemble, prefers to keep quiet. Nowhere is the line between old and new at this world-famous theatre more apparent than in its dingy basement cafeteria. Worried about their jobs, the old staff look uncomfortable and lost among the young acolytes of a new regime.

Good times. Bad times. No one quite knows which. Feelings at the Ensemble are conveyed in muted, subdued voices across coffee cups memorably stamped 'Made in Colditz'; remnants of the GDR, like many of those who drink from them. Some have been here since Brecht himself, and now feel dislocated in a theatre which is cutting its old ties and sailing for new waters. 'You knew everyone and everyone knew you', explains Gisela Schlosser, chief archivist for over 25 years. 'It was not just work, it was our lives'.

No one denies the past successes of Brecht's once-great theatre company, but the glittering star of East Germany lost its shine some time ago, tarnished by a lifeless repertoire of Brecht standards and by internal feuding. Now radical changes in the wake of the country's reunification could bring the sparkle back, but the hefty price leaves Brecht out in the cold.

In a far-reaching package, which puts control in the hands of five directors, the Berliner Ensemble has been privatised. Brecht would not have approved, but in a city straining under the weight of more theatres than it can support, the Ensemble's new profile is the sort of coup most theatres can only dream of. With the leading German playwright Heiner Muller at the helm, and an annual subsidy of DM25 million ( pounds 10 million), expectations run high that it will become a flagship for German theatre once again. In unified Germany's long and painful process of discarding the old, the Ensemble, upgraded rather than closed, has escaped the net.

Brecht's reputation, though, has not. Identified with a discredited regime which rewarded his loyalty with perks unimaginable to normal citizens, the great dramatist of the century has been dubbed a hypocrite by many in the German media. The all-new Berliner Ensemble has duly distanced itself. For the first time in its history Brecht has been demoted, with Shakespeare's Pericles marking the opening. Although an untranslated work, Fatza, will be produced this year, there are no other plans for major productions. For the traditionalists it is as shocking as if the Royal Shakespeare Company were to run a season without a Shakespeare production.

Brecht's work will still be performed occasionally, but the theatre is no longer committed to the dusty repertoire which saw the Ensemble decline from an artistic powerhouse into a theatrical waxworks. Swimming against tradition, Muller also breaks with the German tendency to run plays in repertoire for months, even years, in favour of a system closer to a British rep. From now on five new plays will be produced each year, and scheduled to run for a limited period.

Those whose lives have been dominated by the Ensemble find it inconceivable that Brecht's 'laboratory' - as he termed his theatre - is now experimenting for real. Since Muller's arrival the acting ensemble has been reduced from almost 70 members to less than 20, and over 100 administrative staff have also gone. Five are currently engaged in legal action against the theatre, using a German law which places restrictions on the dismissal of long-serving employees to back their case.

For Muller, the redundancies are a regrettable but inevitable price to pay. Brecht's daughter, Barbara Brecht-Schall, caricatured as a meddlesome grande dame in the German press, is quick to claim that 'papa would not have allowed them to throw 200 people out of work', overlooking the fact that Brecht never had to face the dilemma in a society which guaranteed work for all, however redundant and meaningless the tasks.

If the theatre is a community, says Muller, then it should be a diverse one. Whatever good feelings the old 'community' engendered, it was creatively barren, dominated by too many people with too few ideas. Chewing Brecht-like on a fat cigar, Muller talks like a revolutionary of the 1920s. Marx makes a regular appearance, and so too does Brecht. 'In the last 10 or 15 years the Berliner Ensemble tried to make Brecht kosher for socialism, and he's not kosher, he is a subversive.'

Claims that Brecht is being neglected are dismissed by Muller. 'I want to put on my work in the tradition of Brecht, but at the same time as a criticism by one author of another.' Muller's regard for Brecht is not in doubt - he even excuses the Swiss bank account which the dramatist retained as 'realism'. Brecht has suffered particularly because of his recorded support for the old regime, including a notorious letter published at the time of the Workers Uprising. But few in eastern Germany have escaped questions about their integrity. This week Muller himself was accused in German newspapers of having Stasi connections, an allegation which he denies.

Five minutes from the Ensemble, cloistered in a lavish apartment, ornamented by statuettes and antique furniture, Barbara Brecht-Schall already knows what it is to be associated with the previous regime at the theatre. 'They asked me not to go there any more, not to consider myself an honorary member', she says, 'they believe the legends about me.' Now she can only comment from the sidelines. She has made cakes specially for my visit; 'You might not like them', she says pointedly, 'they're based on a peasant recipe.'

Brecht-Schall is philosophical when discussing her father's adverse publicity - 'in the long run who are you gonna be reading? Brecht, or the guys who criticise?' - but has sharp words for those who have undermined her father's (and by extension her own) influence on the Ensemble. 'What is happening at the Ensemble has nothing to do with what was there. It's a bit of this, and a little of that. I'm just waiting for someone to try and bring in Hello Dolly.'

Insisting that her power has been 'enormously exaggerated' Brecht-Schall laughs off allegations that she was over-influential in the Ensemble after her mother, Helen Weigel, died.

She agrees that the last ten years saw some 'terrible productions', yet remains deeply unhappy with Muller's plans. 'As far as I am concerned there is no more Berliner Ensemble. That's definite, and I wish they would call it something else. Muller's Magic Show, or whatever.'

Magician or not, Muller is transforming the theatre. Seats have all been removed from the stalls for a standing audience; the repertoire system endemic to theatres in Germany has gone; membership has been de-unionised; and joint ventures are evisaged with other European theatres. If all goes to plan, the Berliner Ensemble will be the toast of Berlin once again.

For Muller this new responsibility is an adventure, albeit one with strong guiding priciples. 'The age of pretending to know the truth on stage is over,' he insists. 'What we are looking for on stage is conflict and confrontation'. Whether there will be room for Brecht in the new scheme of things is open to question, but in some forms his legacy lives on. Peter Pavitsch, who began his career as Brecht's assistant, has returned as a sprightly 75-year-old to direct Pericles which opened this week and is by all accounts the most radical production seen on the Ensemble's stage for several decades.

'There are so many illusions and lies now', Muller reflects. 'We have to find a way to disturb the consensus, to disturb the peace, which is an illusionary thing in Germany.' He carefully stubs out his cigar and nods in self-agreement. 'The fall of the Wall was a defeat, and the consequence is that we have to begin from the beginning.' Sentiments with which the writer of Mother Courage, Arturo Ui and the Threepenny Opera would certainly agree. Brecht is dead. Long live Brecht.