60 years old, Bertolt Brecht′s theater ensemble still packs a punch | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 12.06.2009
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60 years old, Bertolt Brecht's theater ensemble still packs a punch

The Berliner Ensemble theater company was founded by Bertolt Brecht and his second wife, actress Helene Weigel, in 1949. Sixty years on, much has changed, but their legacy still defines the company.

Interior of the Berliner Ensemble

The Berliner Ensemble is still one of Berlin's leading theaters

Five years after the ensemble was founded, it moved into the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm in Berlin and has been there ever since.

Pretty much everything else has changed. The post-reunification years were dominated by disputes over the company's ownership and management, and the theater closed for a year in 1999. One year later, Claus Peymann, doyen of Vienna's renowned Burgtheater and a notorious free spirit, was appointed director.

Not a mausoleum

Claus Peymann

Claus Peymann

Throughout his career, Peymann has courted controversy with the sort of productions that attract as much outrage as acclaim. As the driving force behind the Berliner Ensemble, he has kept it firmly in the vanguard of innovative theater - much in the spirit of Bertolt Brecht.

The theater's detractors nonetheless maintain that the Berliner Ensemble is something of a mausoleum. Brecht's own plays are still the backbone of the repertoire, even though Peymann peppers the program with classics ranging from Samuel Beckett to August Strindberg and Heinrich von Kleist.

But any gathering dust is regularly swept away with attention-grabbing productions such as French playwright Yasmina Reza's "Le dieu du carnage" or Robert Wilson's "The Sonnets," one of this year's most talked-about shows in Berlin - not least thanks to the participation of flamboyant singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright.

In April, Peymann told the newspaper Die Welt in no uncertain terms that in the last eight years, 20 percent of the theater's performances were premieres, and that contemporary works make up 58 percent of the program.

Nevertheless, the Ensemble's chief selling point remains epic theater. Along with "The Threepenny Opera" and "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui," another evergreen is "Mother Courage."

The greatest anti-war play of all time

Archive picture of Helene Weigel as Mutter Courage in 1948

Helene Weigel as "Mutter Courage" in 1948

Written by Bertolt Brecht in 1939 as an attempt to counter the rise of Fascism and Nazism, "Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder" ("Mother Courage") is the tale of a woman trying to keep her business and family alive during the Thirty Years' War in Europe. Today, it is still considered by many to be the greatest anti-war play of all time.

Some of Germany's most respected stage actors are long-standing members of the Berliner Ensemble. One of them is Carmen-Maja Antoni, who plays Mother Courage in the latest production.

A former child actress who appeared on East German television at the age of eleven, the 64-year-old joined the Berliner Ensemble in 1976. One of her first roles was as Kattrin, the mute daughter in Mother Courage. Today, Kattrin is played by 28-year-old Christina Drechsler.

They say that although they have been performing the play for over three years, there are always new aspects of it to discover.

“Every day is a new difficult situation and we have new ideas about scenes," said Antoni. "Every evening it is a new play.”

"The structures of the scenes are the same, but our feelings change over the years," echoed Drechsler.

According to Antoni, every director has a different style and a personal take on Brecht, and that's what challenges her as an actress.

It's also what challenges audiences. Playwright Jutta Ferbers works at the Berliner Ensemble and agrees that what draws people to the theater is an inspiring combination of directors, actors and set designers. She has a ready answer to those who say that the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe have made Brecht obsolete:

“He is really one of the greatest writers there are, and he has heart," she stressed. "Brecht is still very important for people. His plays are very well-crafted and they're relevant today. They're not history, they're alive.”

Ferbers is confident that the Ensemble has a future despite constant threats of cutbacks and closures.

"I hope that even in these hard times, we'll have enough money and enough audiences to continuing producing good theater," she said.

A scene from the play Arturo Ui

The play "Arturo Ui" is part of the BE repertoire

Peymann the provocateur

Thanks largely to its artistic director - who makes a habit of hectoring Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit about dwindling subsidies for arts and culture - the theater is, in fact, in good shape financially. And it certainly isn't low-profile.

Traditionally a touring company, the Berliner Ensemble took "Mother Courage" to Tehran's Fadj Theater Festival in 2008. It was a controversial move, with protestors saying that Peymann's decision to visit Iran legitimized the anti-Semitism of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Several months later, Peymann was back in the headlines when he offered a former terrorist an internship. After 26 years behind bars, Christian Klar - one of the leading members of the second generation of the Red Army Faction terrorist group - was invited to train as a stage technician at the Berlin Ensemble.

Founding father Bertolt Brecht probably would have approved. Sixty years after the company came into being, Claus Peymann is still challenging society with the same verve as his predecessor.

Author: Cheryl Northey / Jane Paulick

Editor: Kate Bowen

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