Throughout May, Berlin's theaters welcome the best plays from the German-speaking world but Anne Thomas finds that much of the greatest drama takes place on the city's streets or in its less conventional venues.
It was cold and dark as I climbed up the stairs from the subway tunnel to Hermannplatz - a square in the district of Neukölln that is infamous for attracting unsavory types such as junkies and drunks. Ahead of me were two men - one wearing a green floral dress and carrying a ukulele, the other dressed in a pinstripe suit and a bowler hat, holding a violin. They were arguing about where the party was. Not reaching a consensus, the ukulele player stomped off towards Kreuzberg, while the violinist headed for Neukölln.
As I walked home, I mused about whether they were even very good, whether the party guests would miss them, how long the drummer and bassist that perhaps made up their unconventional quartet would wait before forming a duo that might go on to storm the charts. All the world's a stage, Shakespeare famously said. Berlin is no exception.
Many scenes of daily reality here could not have been penned by the greatest playwrights of our time. There is sometimes nothing more entertaining than a bunch of drunks discussing politics or a young couple breaking up on the bus oblivious to the hordes of passengers around them eavesdropping.
Thus, Berlin's inhabitants too are "players with their exits and entrances" and they provide the material for many of the plays that are staged in the city's more conventional theaters, as well as in less conservative locations such as the Prime Theater in Wedding.
A live soap
"Gutes Wedding, Schlechtes Wedding" is a live soap opera that alternates the use of biting wit and compassion to portray the characters, who populate this district notorious for its high poverty and unemployment rates.
I went on Mothers' Day and all the audience members were greeted personally (the mothers and mothers-to-be received extra special attention) by Calle, who later turned up on stage in many roles, including that of Murat, the kebab shop employee who "has feelings despite being a Turk."
The play, which treats the same themes as your average television soap, has no qualms about taking stereotypes (whether about 'foreigners' in Wedding, Polish bus drivers or yuppies in Prenzlauer Berg) and exaggerating them ad absurdum, to the great pleasure of those in the audience.
It is also full of clever little touches and multimedia elements integrated seamlessly into the live performance. One great idea is "Döner Wars," a video game that Murat wants to offer to his more restless male clients, which pits German potatoes against Italian pasta and Turkish kebabs. Murat wins invariably!
Accompanied by decent beer from the local brewery and hearty German and Turkish fare from the theater's restaurant, the evening left me with an inflated sense of affection for my adopted city.
A Berlin life
The same was true when I saw "Berliner Leben" at the opera house in Neukölln Oper, Wedding's sister district so-to-speak when it comes to topping the charts for social unrest.
Set up in 1988 in a former ballroom to bring culture to "problem" areas, the Neuköllner Oper has since established itself as Berlin's fourth opera stage, drawing in the crowds with their operas, musicals, satires and experimental theater.
In the company's very loose take on Offenbach's operetta "La Vie Parisienne," Natascha and Alexej, two rich Ukrainians, turn up at Berlin's Schönefeld airport to be shown the glittering lights of Kreuzkölln instead of two Swedes arriving by train in Paris. They are met by Omar, a Neukölln drug-dealer who spots a chance to make some easy money and get Natascha into bed. The audience is led through the district's rollercoaster nightlife with its techno clubs and gambling halls.
Although it is not the wittiest of productions, the gags kept the audience happy and it was certainly entertaining fare for a Saturday night.
A fringe fiasco
The same could not be said of my experience earlier this year of the 100° Berlin festival that celebrates fringe theater. Over a period of four days, theater and performance groups have free reign to show their plays or installations at the innovative Hebbel am Ufer and the Sophiensaele. The first 100 to apply can perform and accordingly it is pretty hit-or-miss.
I stumbled from one performance to the next in the sincere belief that it could only get better, but by the end I had to concede that the first play had actually been the best. Yet, this Polish interpretation of Boccaccio's "Decameron" had been so amateurish that the only reason we did not walk out was that we were in the front row and did not want to cause offense.
It is to avoid such disappointment that some of Berlin's ardent theater-goers prefer to stick to the city's more established venues. The Deutsches Theater once numbered among the world's leading stages; Bertolt Brecht won international acclaim with his Berliner Ensemble, while the radical Volksbühne and the ground-breaking Schaubühne under Thomas Ostermeier's artistic direction have both received international attention for their exciting productions of works ranging from Goethe's "Faust" to Mark Ravenhill's "Shopping and F**king."
During May, the city's lovers of serious drama are swamping these theaters as they welcome the best 10 productions from German-speaking countries for the acclaimed Theatertreffen festival.
Berlin's the stage to be, on or off.
Author: Anne Thomas
Editor: Jessie Wingard