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Konrad Werner: Goodbye, Volksbühne

The Volksbühne under Frank Castorf was funny and exhausting and ingenious and dense and uncompromising and communist. Konrad will miss it.

Image for Konrad Werner: Goodbye, Volksbühne
Theearthshaker, Wikimedia Commons

Last weekend, the Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz ended forever. I hadn’t been there for years until I went twice these past few months, and then I realized how much I’ll miss it. My arse sweated into the plastic seats in a pleasingly familiar way. The absence of the giant metal footed-wheel (a symbol derived from secret signs – Zinken – once used by beggars and robbers) already makes Berlin feel different.

Whatever Chris Dercon, the Belgian former Tate Modern curator who is taking over in autumn, does with the place, he’s less likely to keep emphasizing the importance of the name in the Volksbühne’s street address (recalcitrant troublemaker Rosa Luxemburg); less likely to make a speech in which he thanks the stage hands above anyone else and swears that the most important thing he did was to establish an “equal relationship between manual labour and head labour.” “You win battles, but lose wars,” he told the packed street party that stood outside the final Castorf show on Saturday – and the war to maintain this bit of old East Berlin has now finally been lost. Dercon’s Volksbühne might be amazing, but his plan suggests he intends to create a globalised mash – a disparate house of many influences, rather than the stubborn, dense, idiosyncratic slapstick Marxism that Castorf created. 

When I came to Berlin in 2000, I went to see Castorf’s version of A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams about four times. It was carnage. Williams’ long, pedantic stage directions were scrolled across the top of the stage on a red ticker display, like in a post office, bearing no relation to anything happening underneath, where it seemed like the characters – in a trailer mounted on the stage – had simply been let out of the play. The programme claimed that Streetcar was “early proof” of the thesis that “an individual life is a serialised miniature capitalist crisis, a disaster that bears your name.”

Stanley Kowalski’s miniature capitalist crisis, it seemed, involved wearing a Solidarność t-shirt (I suppose because of his Polish heritage?) while flinging playing cards into the audience with his dysfunctional drinking pals singing a Britney Spears song. The Kowalskis’ trailer, mounted on hydraulics, was occasionally tipped up on to its back, so the actors had to clamber up the carpeted floor to be seen by the audience. 

The play, which had to be renamed Endstation Amerika for legal reasons, was still there somewhere, but it had been rebuilt rather than just reinterpreted or re-imagined in the normal manner. Actors weren’t acting, they were just sort of doing the parts – careering around and stretching the play to the point of exhaustion. No line, written down or drawn, was respected. The characters didn’t just ignore the fourth wall, they ignored the first three too. They weren’t pretending anything.

Seventeen years later, Castorf, having for a while given up on plays altogether and worked his way through, among other things, the complete works of Dostoyevsky while falling out with Berlin’s culture politicians, realized finally that there was only one good way to end his reign: a seven-hour Faust by Goethe.

It wasn’t just that though, obviously. It was Faust I (a more or less straightforward Shakespeare-ish tragedy) dovetailed with Faust II (an impenetrable metaphysical trip involving a homunculus and the underworld and demon armies), plus interventions from Sartre and Byron (who appeared on stage to invoke his suicidal intellectual creation Manfred), plus whole scenes from an Émile Zola novel set among Parisian prostitutes and seedy theatres, plus various allusions to France’s colonialist war in Algeria. Given the material, seven hours turned out to be pretty short (during the finale, Faust complained about all the parts that had been left out).

The stage set was a towering grand guignol: a fantastical dungeon, a cinema of 1950s horror films representing early 20th-century Paris in the form of a colossal building mounted on the rotating stage, with several floors, a terraced roof on top, and a Metro station underneath (where, in one memorable scene, the bald homunculus was born squawking from cling film on the floor of a train carriage while a Frenchman performed Paul Celan’s Holocaust poem Death Fugue).

The effect of all this was to submerge Faust in a new and darker context – the themes of land seizure and war in Faust II were reframed to suggest the root of European colonialism. This is what Castorf did – he took the claw of a hammer to the material and prized out ideas and bent them. It was really exhausting. And now it’s gone. But danke: