The Volksbühne

By Rob Packer

The Volksbühne

„Wir freuen uns auf Ihren Besuch und wünschen Ihnen einen anregenden Abend“
Email sign-off, Volksbühne Berlin

If you could timetravel, where would you go? I saw this question on the train to the airport (on Mediaeval Musing’s excellent blog). My answers were definitive and immediate: Justinian’s Constantinople, pre-Conquest Tenochtitlán, Weimar Berlin. On a tram in Leipzig the next day, I heard the excellent BBC documentary, “Europe: The Art of Austerity”*, on artistic responses to 1930’s austerity in London, Paris and Berlin, where it looked at Brecht, Döblin and others (listen online or on podcast). A few days after that on a Prenzlauer Berg terrace, I clapped open Zitty, the Berlin listings magazine, and saw two Brecht Lehrstücke on the next day at the Volksbühne. If that isn’t a sign, what is? Tickets were booked within hours. And when I read the email sign-off, wishing me a stimulating (anregend) evening—rather than the normal pleasant (angenehm) one—I knew they were telling the truth.

The Volksbühne has a special place in my heart: alongside its important place in the developing fin de siècle German theatre, I have enduring memories of a night ten years ago in its Roter Salon, a bar in the building. Lights shone through red velvet curtains into the cold of the dying winter and Zitty had promised “Rare Grooves”. Inside, the grooves were certainly rare enough (excellent and never to be found or heard again); the clientele and the people-watching more so. Under the red glow of the chandeliers, the normal Berlin crowd was thin on the ground, leaving space for a work night-out from who-knows-where (we first guessed Charlottenburg, but then decided Düsseldorf more likely); meanwhile a perma-hippie peace-piped his way around the dance floor. Who were they? How did they get there? Who knows, but mercifully, the place is still keeping it real with nights with names like Kill All Hipsters.

Ten years later in the auditorium downstairs, the performances of Der Jasager/Der Neinsager (He Said Yes/He Said No) and Das Badener Lehrstück von Einverständnis (The Baden-Baden Lesson on Consent) were equally memorable (see the videos here): Ruth Rosenfeld’s fantastic soprano voice was a particular highlight. Der Jasager** was asylum physicality with hand-held cameras as sopranos popped Sekt bottles and stalked characters across the stage. Inside a circus tent on the stage, Lehrstück was another mix of experimental theatre and opera with an infamous grotesque scene where two clowns dismember Herr Schmidt, ostensibly as pain relief. My head full of news, it was hard not to see a modern-day parallel with my continent’s seemingly unstoppable path to ruin.

I studied Brecht at university, and lectures and essays on his theatre were often dominated by his Verfremdungseffekt (distancing or estrangement effect), a device to make his audiences look critically at what they were seeing on stage. But the performances I saw rarely made me feel estranged or distanced. In this Volksbühne performance, Verfremdung started in the programme: a series of articles and lyrics with space to note down your impressions, design “an Egyptian sculpture in American prose”, or draw “a jolly proletarian”, some “disguised agitators” or “an antisocial gladiator”. The sign-off was true: it really was anregend—not angenehm—a challenging multi-sensory experience that reached inside you and left you feeling overwhelmed, uneasy and very, very strange.

We walked out onto a beautiful quiet of a Berlin evening with the bauble of the Fernsehturm hanging like a Socialist moon over the city and headed to Monsieur Vuong, a fantastic Vietnamese restaurant on Alte Schönhauser Straße. I felt the usual trembling of my love for Berlin reawakening and reblossoming—but this time it was joined by something just a little Brechtian jittering alongside.

* My Radio 3 listening is part of a vast, and growing, body of evidence of slamming into middle age.

** I know it’s a bit pretentious to use the German names in this situation, but these English names are pretty unwieldy. Sorry.

The Fernsehturm

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