Whatever happened to the Berliner Ensemble?

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In an interview last week in Die Zeit with the new triumvirate running the Berliner Ensemble, the interviewer kicked off with the rather aggressive question, "Why is German theatre so boring?" I'm not sure of his idea of boring, but Thomas Heiser's production of the late Heiner Muller's Der Bau (The Construction Site), premiered on Saturday at the Berliner Ensemble, certainly fits mine.

Heiner Muller was a genius both as writer and director, but this production so soon after his death does him no favours. Like most of Muller's work, this is a dense and complex text, Beckettian if not Joycean (insofar as Muller was ever influenced by anybody) in its play on words, surreal flights and startlingly sudden changes of direction. Written in 1964, but not performed until 1980, it is based on a novel by Erik Neutsch, with a stock farcical situation of conflicting orders from the Communist hierarchy on whether to direct resources into building a waterworks or a power station, along with petty corruption among the workforce. (By 1980 the Party stranglehold on what was permissible in the theatre had weakened enough to allow a production.) Muller deconstructs the novel, thereby rendering it far more subversive than Neutsch - a loyal Party man who strayed accidentally into realism - had ever intended, and, more daringly for the time, Muller also ruthlessly deconstructs Party jargon.

It is a difficult play to produce, full of long speeches packed with absurdist allusions, but Heiser has not only rolled with the punches, but gone out of his way to drag things out even further. There are long silences and extra business, and Heiser even inserts Muller's Hamlet Machine, recited in a deadpan voice by an actor stage front, in the middle of what is a long four-and-a-half-hour evening. Muller did the same in his mould- breaking 1990 production of Shakespeare's Hamlet.

The production starts well, with the new Party secretary, Donat (Thomas Stecher), arriving on the site to inspect progress. He has scarcely reached stage front when a dozen huge grey boxes fallbehind him. These boxes are adroitly used throughout the production as containers, building blocks, to indicate lorries, or recepticles to dump people in. The stage of the Berliner Ensemble is otherwise left bare. A more startling descent from the flies, though not so sudden, is the district secretary (Uwe Steinbruch) on a black horse. He remains about three metres above the other actors for the rest of the scene.

As so often in Berlin theatre today, one slowly becomes aware that the audience is divided into two parts, those from East and West. The play, and this production, is full of allusions, in both the text and the music used, only too familiar to Easterners; for those from the West, it almost falls into the category of an exotic curiosity. Perhaps that is where it should remain. The text will survive as literature, but for the moment, with the frisson of a flirtation with the forbidden gone, palpable in the 1980 production, that particular past is still so close as merely to look ridiculous now, like flares and long sideburns.

The triumvirate of the chief dramaturg Carl Hegemann (46), artistic co-ordinator and long-time assistant of Heiner Muller, Stephan Suschke (37) and the actor Martin Wuttke (33) as artistic director, is clearly meant to present a young and dynamic image.

Wuttke, who shot to stardom as Arturo Ui in Muller's Berliner Ensemble production last year, is the surprise appointment, and possibly an interesting signal that the day of the director as supreme force in German theatre might be on the wane. However, as Wuttke is a protege of the controversial Berliner Ensemble's house director, Einar Schleef, this development is less than certain.