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Theater scandal

Heiner Kiesel / hwNovember 2, 2012

The Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik presented his extremist theories in court before his conviction. Now, four theaters in Europe, including one in Berlin, are using the texts as materials for new works.

The German-Turkish actress Sascha Ö. Soydan on stage in Weimar.
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Sascha Ö. Soydan is holding Anders Breivik's testimony in her hand. The file containing the words of the Norwegian found guilty of killing 77 people in July 2011 is almost one finger thick.

Breivik claimed that he was acting in defense of a certain "Nordic ethnicity" and wanted to gain maximum publicity for his ideas. His first stage was a court room. Now, a Turkish actress is reading his text in the austere space of the "Theaterdiscounters," a fringe theater in Berlin.

The director Milo Rau wants the play to expose the errors in reasoning of European right-wing extremism. Audiences can observe Soydan for just over an hour as she tries to give a voice to the text.

She stands in a narrow cone of light behind a brown, wooden lectern. She reads from the page in a flat voice, pauses, stares up from the page and then continues to read.

Theater director Milo Rau. Foto: Michael Reichel/dpa
The Swiss theater director Milo RauImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The text is crude and convoluted. It supposedly deals with Marxist influenced systems of education and authority, which - driven by a vague ideology described as multiculturalism - are leading "ethnic Europeans" to ruin.

The presentation of the text as "Breiviks Erklärung - öffentlicher Filmdreh" ("Breivik's Explanation - Public Film Shooting") goes some way to setting the tone. The actress only makes eye-contact with a camera, and then, via a large screen just a few steps to her right, makes contact with the public indirectly.

There's no danger of Breivik's work finding a sympathetic ear among the audience.

No forum for Breivik

As the reading was due to be performed a week ago at the German National Theater in Weimar, the theater's management halted the production. The theater didn't want to give Breivik a forum, the director Thomas Schmidt explained.

A murderer on the stage? That wasn't to be the case. Instead, the reading was staged in a nearby cinema. The reasons for the relocation were debated in the feuilletons and declared a scandal.

But interest in the work grew as a consequence, leading to a sold-out performance in Berlin. Soydan stands at the front in a bright pink tracksuit, chewing gum as she reads from Breivik's text.

The issue is not about whether or not a murderer should be given a stage. Theater is full of killers: Oedipus, for example, in the countless re-workings of stories from antiquity, Karl Moor in Schiller's "The Robbers," and Dostoyevsky's Raskolnikov in "Crime and Punishment."

Each of these characters is in conflict with themselves and the conditions of their being. In committing murder, they finally over-step the mark, but they capture the public's imagination and involve audiences in dealing with the consequences.

The key to it all is identification. With "Breivik's Explanation," this mechanism is disabled through the choice of casting and the style of the performance.

Laughable and grotesque

Is it really so scandalous to give the writings of a murderer space in the theater? There are plenty of examples of it happening in the past.

Norwegian mass killer Anders Behring Breivik (C) arrives in the court room at Oslo Courthouse August 24, 2012. The Norwegian court delivers its verdict in the ten-week trial of gunman Breivik on Friday, deciding whether to send the anti-Muslim militant to jail or a mental hospital for the massacre of 77 people last summer. REUTERS/Heiko Junge/NTB Scanpix/Pool
Anders Breivik during his trial in Oslo, NorwayImage: Reuters

In the 1990s, the cabaret artist Serdar Somuncu toured Germany with his reading of Hitler's "Mein Kampf" in an attempt to unmask the book as both laughable and grotesque.

Milo Rau himself has staged Heinrich Himmler's Posener speech as a reading in order to highlight how weak the words of the SS leader really are.

And now, the re-enactment of a text by a mass murderer from contemporary times. Here too, the banality of the text is foregrounded. Half-way through the reading, the actress spits out her chewing gum and sticks it under the lectern. It's a gesture intended to skewer the pomposity of the text's content.

The performance is intentionally spiritless. And yes, Breivik's testimony is boring and reflects the type of propaganda spread in extreme right-wing, racist and xenophobic circles across Europe. Conservative anti-Islamists in Switzerland, the Freedom Party of Austria and the National Democratic Party of Germany all speak this language.

Milo Rau said that he wanted to highlight these very connections and the worrying prevalence of the type of ideology with which Anders Breivik justified murder. Rau succeeds in doing that. But the discussion regarding the structure of the arguments and the people who use them remains open.