(Taken directly from their website) The Deutsches Theater in Berlin is a theatrical institution with a permanent and highly-acclaimed ensemble. Behind its classical façade, the Deutsches Theater building on Schumannstraße is home to three stages: the main stage, built in 1850, with its intimate auditorium that seats 600; the ‘Kammerspiele’, established by Max Reinhardt in 1906 for modern drama, which holds some 230 spectators; and the Box, a compact black box located in the Kammerspiele foyer with seating for 80, which opened in 2006.
Our apartment is located almost right beside the Deutsches Theater, so it seemed only fitting that we pop next door and take in some authentic German live theatre. The theatre takes a summer hiatus beginning on July 11th, so I needed to choose a performance this week.
Ted is not a huge fan of drama productions even in English, so I asked at the box office what their “lightest” play would be (that also featured English surtitles). The lovely young man behind the window smiled and responded with the title of this episode (although we were speaking German, so it’s a translation).
Of this week’s remaining performances, we immediately eliminated Herman Hesse’s “Steppenwolf”; you can’t get much more stereotypically depressing German than that. We also eliminated anything for which the only remaining tickets were right at the front, since the surtitles can only be seen from the first 8 rows by craning one’s neck backwards for the entire performance. Somehow I didn’t think that would endear me to Ted, especially when I was already dragging him to sonething that was not a musical.
Herr Box Office and I settled on “Einsame Menschen” (Lonely People), by Gerhart Hauptmann, being presented in the Kammerspiele. The play’s synopsis follows. Remember, this was the “lightest” play on offer this season! (Go ahead, you can say it: “Poor Ted”. He really does put up with a lot.)
The Vockerat family lives in a house right on the Müggelsee and everything is “perfect”. The couple Johannes and Käthe have just had a child. Not planned, and Käthe gave up medical school, but a baby is what makes a family… right? Johannesʼ mother Eva has come to help her daughter-in-law through the difficult first few weeks at home. (And who doesn’t want their mother-in-law living with them and taking over?) Somehow happiness and contentment just aren’t magically appearing. Käthe sinks into a postnatal low, while Johannes, a one-book-sensation novelist is in the midst of a bout of writer’s block which is also leaving the family strapped for cash. Eva watches with concern as the couple drift apart. When Johannes’ childhood friend Sophie Braun comes for her annual extended stay, she unexpectedly brings another guest with her: Arno, a young single professor of Women’s Studies and the Future of Feminism at Stanford. He initially charms everyone, but quickly becomes Johannes confidante, muse…. and lover…and everyone involved must decide whether they can adapt, and whether they can understand and forgive each other.
It’s amazing to think that with a very few tweaks this adaptation was true to playwright Gerhart Hauptmann’s 1870 script. The theme of prioritizing the needs of each individual changing in a young family adapting to the birth of a child remains relevant, even if the gender of the Johannes’ lover is changed.
I found the first act of the play fascinating, if a little too true-to-life. It was all too easy to understand the characters’ frustrations, although Johannes’ role (in my opinion) was played too much like a whiney spoiled child than an angst-ridden adult. My biggest disappointment was on Ted’s behalf: the translations used for the surtitles completely missed the humour and sarcasm in many of the scenes. I found myself re-translating in my head, and thinking that Ted had no idea why the audience and I were laughing based on the words on the screen. (I believe he caught a wee nap by way of self-defense during Act One.)
Act Two had very little dialogue and a (for us) much too prolonged nude male sex scene. Honestly, I get the artistry of no words and just music (Ricky Nelson’s “Lonely Town”), and the symbolism and sensuality of the entire scene being done in the rain, with the stage and the actors getting drenched by the overhead mist sprayers, but the longer the scene was stretched out the harder it became not to want the plot to resume.
There was no happy ending, but Germans theatre audiences sure do love their angst-filled dramas – there were SIX curtain calls.
Naturally, despite not loving the play, I loved the “experience”: strolling to the theatre, people watching at intermission, being immersed in the German language … and all for a very reasonable €23 ($30 CAD/$24 USD) per person taxes included ticket price.
But, poor Ted. I owe him pizza. Or a day off.