Two theater premieres in Berlin: Transcending distress

What happens when actors become soldiers? This is what artists ask at the Schaubühne in Berlin. How does art change in times of war?

An actor stands in front of a table with his arms outstretched

Oleh Stefan from the Left Bank Theater Kyiv at the Berlin Schaubühne Photo: Gianmarco Bresadola

The Schaubühne in Berlin opens the season with the documentary play "Arming yourself against a sea of ​​plagues" by the Ukrainian director Stas Zhyrkov about the war in his homeland and takes a look at the front lines in particular. Explored in the Berliner Ensemble Luke Perceval in an adaptation of the novel "Exil" by Lion Feuchtwanger, on the other hand, the abysses of the distance from home.

Both productions prove that theater can be contemporary even when contemporaneity demands a lot in the face of wars here, atrocities there and an ever-heating globe. In the final sequence of "Exil" it is even suggested that in the greatest need it is art that transcends the need and makes the suffering human being a social being in the first place.

In his novel “Exile”, Lion Feuchtwanger left the composer Sepp Trautwein, who had fled from Munich to escape the Nazis, only came to his senses when he was able to transfer the miserable conditions of waiting for certificates to work, to flee, to survive in general into a symphony about waiting. The composer, designed by Oliver Kraushaar as a Bavarian Polterkopf, sits at the edge of the stage and lets everything that was told in this very epic evening condense into sounds.

Reported to the army from the theater

At the same time, in western Berlin, at the end of the Ku'damm, a Ukrainian-German ensemble made up of members of the Left Bank Theater Kyiv and the Schaubühne what artists can do in times of war. Left Bank Director Stas Zhyrkov completely dispensed with a rhetorical questioning pose. Instead, he directly interviewed fellow actors who reported directly to the army from the stage closed by the Russian war of aggression.

"Exile" at the Berliner Ensemble again on October 8th + 9th, 22nd + 23rd.

In addition, the Berliner Ensemble has the series “Stories from Exile“, with artists from Ukraine, beginning on September 16th.

"Arming yourself against a sea of ​​plagues" at the Schaubühne, again on October 14 + 15 + 16.

Your interview statements will be staged by Oleh Stefan and Dmytro Oliinyk, two ensemble colleagues from the Left Bank Theater who have come to Berlin, as well as Schaubühne ensemble member Holger Bylow.

Stefan and Oliinyk are also concerned with the question of why they are here and why the others are there. You, and everyone else who might feel the same way, will be relieved to the maximum by someone who is at the front. "Not everyone has to go into the army, it's not necessary at all," says Vova Kravchuk, an actor with the Left Bank Theater, in his soldier's uniform via video interview.

Kravchuk also talks about his doubts, about his confrontation with the idea of ​​his own death and the idea of ​​having to kill others, yes, wanting to kill them. Confrontations of this kind can of course be found in classical drama literature. But here she is led by a person of today, someone who studies acting and has appeared in comedies and dramas. That makes it different, more direct and more disturbing at the same time.

Kravchuk does other volts as well. He de-heroizes the military by introducing different types of warriors, such as the NATO super-soldier, who has the most fantastic pieces of equipment sent to him by the woman abroad and struts across the battlefield like a robot soldier. In general, questions about equipment are characterized by humor in the reports of the actors who have become soldiers. Stefan, Oliinyk and Bülow exaggerate the whole thing by putting on pumps instead of solid shoes, slipping on glittering panties instead of long, thick underpants or wrapping themselves in ponchos and sombreros.

One is also in a theater of war, one that takes a stand

Director Stas Zhyrkow and dramaturge Pavlo Arie have also incorporated frightening scenes. The audio track of phone calls which, according to the subline, Russian soldiers had with their wives and girlfriends and which the Ukrainian secret service intercepted is played over the theater's loudspeakers. Men's voices can be heard telling their wives about rapes and asking permission to do so.

The authenticity of the tape cannot be verified from the theater seat. It becomes clear that one is also in a theater of war, one that takes a stance – and that extends the stance into the auditorium.

The nationality thing

But other tones are also struck. In an autobiographical sketch at the beginning, Stefan highlights the confusion of nationalities in the post-Soviet giant empire. His ID said Russian because his father said Russian too. But he was originally Moldovan, while his mother was Ukrainian. His mother tongue, the one he grew up with, despite an hour of Ukrainian at school, was Russian. Now he's Ukrainian, period. Wars do that too.

One actor stands on a short ladder as if about to jump down, others sit on chairs

Scene from "Exile" in the Berliner Ensemble Photo: Jörg Brueggemann

“Exil”, the premiere of the season at the Berliner Ensemble, also revolves around questions of identity. What is man still abroad, what can he be? Trautwein, the composer, is an assistant teacher at the music school in exile from the Nazis. He also works his way into journalism at an émigré newspaper in Paris. His wife Anna is more practical, she organizes getting by. But she also notices the alienation. "A work card is more important to me than your music," she says, as the quintessence of not being what you used to be.

Luc Perceval's production needs some time before it picks up speed. In the shadow of an Eiffel Tower made up of many chairs, he unfolds the many narrative strands of the novel: intrigues between the emigrants, but also the subversive activities of the Nazi envoys in Paris, for whom the émigré newspaper is a thorn in their side.

Chamber play about survival

After the break, when the many narrative threads have finally been laid out, the production condenses into a chamber play fought with unconditional hardness for survival. Anna sees no way out. How she dies, how she takes her own life, especially in view of the speechlessness between her and her once beloved partner, Pauline Knof plays with an urgency that goes deep into every heart. It is the emotional high point of the evening.

And without Perceval letting his ensemble make explicit references to Ukraine, thoughts inevitably come to mind about those who are now in exile, again in Paris under the Eiffel Tower, but also here under the TV tower very close to the theatre. “Exile” thus becomes the complementary evening of “Arming yourself against a sea of ​​plagues”.

Artistically, Perceval's staging is much more elaborate and much more elaborately produced. It should have been out much earlier, was planned well before the Russian war of aggression and has been postponed by the pandemic. Now it becomes an analysis piece on current exile situations. Zhyrkow's production, on the other hand, is quickly thrown in, red hot, and still goes in depth.

On the one hand, it can be seen as a consolation that in “Exile” the composer creates a work out of all the suffering. On the other hand, it is also a very bitter commentary on the artistic production business: it is only from the suicide of his own wife that a man draws the strength to compose music. Lots of food for thought.

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