An ugly aesthetic alive and thriving

The collapse of the Berlin Wall did not spell curtains for East German theatre; A new production had to measure up to an old legend
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I was in Germany last week, forming part of a claque that cheered the debut of a friend, Geoffrey Layton, as producer. The opera was Don Carlos, the opera house was in Stralsund, a small city on the Baltic coast in an area of what used to be East Germany. The region is called Vorpommern - that is to say, the bit you go through before arriving in Pomerania.

It's not yet too late to see what East Germany once looked like, but you will have to move fast if you are keen to catch it before it disappears. Stralsund, for instance, is much like the other Hanseatic ports of Lebeck and Gdansk, with red-brick, gabled houses dating from the 14th century. But it gives the appearance of having been caught just in time, before it crumbled right away. Everything medieval, including its notable churches, had been neglected. The small opera house, on the other hand, which looked fascistic but in fact dated back to 1915, was in good nick.

Geoffrey Layton, despite his name, is a West German (his Jewish family spent the war in America, returning only in the Fifties), and so he needed some tact while working in Stralsund, since he was part of a process common in the arts, by which westerners have come into jobs that would formerly have only gone to easterners. Not that a modest summer production in Stralsund counts as a plum job, but it is the trend, rather than the individual case, that causes the resentment.

For instance, in the museum world, where Berlin is in the process of rationalising its collections from both east and west, it is obvious that some jobs had to go. But the problem for the easterners is that, under the old regime, they had far less chance to publish learned articles than did the westerners. So, if one compared their qualifications, a westerner would tend to have the advantage over an easterner, who might lose a job for no better reason than that he or she lived through a paper shortage under the old regime.

That is the general trend, and it is impossible always to distinguish between the injustice that nobody can do anything about (that is, the injustice of past history) and the current decisions being made, some of which may be unjust. In the audience at Stralsund I met one of Berlin's theatrical panjandrums, Ivan Nagel, with whom I was later able to talk at length about these questions.

Nagel, who left Hungary as a young man in 1948, has alternated between theatre (he was Intendant in Stuttgart) and journalism. Now in semi-retirement, he teaches and is involved in the distribution of theatrical subsidies. So he caught some of the flak when, in 1993, the Schillertheater in West Berlin was suddenly closed down - a decision that vividly bucked the cultural trend since 1989.

In fact - and this surprised me - the trend in Berlin has been for the theatrical institutions of the east to survive, while those of the west have, like the weak, gone to the wall. The Schiller was one of those, to us, inconceivably grand theatres, which - like the Burgtheater in Vienna - had its permanent company of actors. They had jobs for life (indeed, the senior members of the Schiller will go on being paid for life) but they did not necessarily act in every production. Their job was like a pension, a guarantee. What's more, during the period up to 1989, there was an agreement among West German companies that nobody would try to poach an actor from the Schiller, without prior permission from its Intendant. This sounds like a recipe for artistic stagnation. But there it was, until, very suddenly, the once unthinkable decision was made. The Schiller and the Freie Volksbuhne were closed. Of the major theatres in the west, only the Schaubuhne remains, as against four in the east.

Brecht's old company, the Berliner Ensemble, is the most famous of these. Nagel had the idea of getting Peter Zadek and Heiner Muller to share its direction - bringing west and east together. The experiment failed, Zadek left and Muller underwent treatment for throat cancer. His physical comeback was followed last week by a new production of Arturo Ui.

This was one of the ensemble's celebrated warhorses - Brecht's son-in- law, Ekkehard Schall, played it 500 times before refusing to do it again on the grounds that he was growing to like the hero (who is Hitler) too much. A new production therefore had to measure up to an old legend, as Martin Wuttke, the leading actor (with his wife, Margarita Broich, a survivor from the shipwreck of the Schiller) found, when members of the company would say to him in rehearsals, "Herr Schall played it so ... Herr Schall would stand here when he delivered those lines ... Herr Schall did it like this."

Audiences had been falling off at the ensemble's theatre, and everyone last Monday knew that the company badly needed a success. In the event, the applause and cheers became a kind of demonstration, a tribute to Wuttke's performance, and a welcome back for Heiner Muller. It is indeed a remarkable performance (I saw it on the second night) which begins at a high intensity that it never loses. I was not able to follow everything that Muller had done to the play, although the style of production seemed to proceed authentically from Brecht's ideas. One supposes that having outlived its counterparts in the former west, the Berliner Ensemble will modify and survive.

The generally acknowledged success among the post-1989 theatres is the Volksbuhne (as distinguished from the Freie Volksbuhne), which Nagel was instrumental in persuading a former dissident figure, Frank Castorf, to take over. This has found a following in both east and west, from the hip districts of Prenzlauerberg (former east) and Kreuzberg. Nagel said something about it that I've never heard anyone say of a theatre before. "It's been a success," he said. "It's got too many fans, but still ... it's a success."

"Does it do mainly new work?" I asked.

"No," said Nagel. "Castorf prefers tearing up old plays." And he painted a picture of an ugly theatre in which an angry, ugly East German aesthetic has thrived.

We shall be able to see the Volksbuhne company in London in July, as part of the London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT). The title of itsproduction translates as "Kill the European! A Patriotic Evening." It could be interesting, if only as evidence that East Germany did not entirely vanish when the wall came down. Something of all that anger remains.