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2021 on the Berlin stage

Brecht, Kleist, video streams and gender fluid casting, we look back on the best of the stage in 2021

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The bloodthirsty Michael Kohlhaas at Schaubühne. Photo: Gianmarco Bresadola



Summer was cancelled by the merciless weather gods. To spite them, Deutsches Theater did an outdoor season, while Schaubühne established safety procedures and stayed open too. This meant that their thundering, long awaited Michael Kohlhaas finally got staged (repeating in December). Tanz im August brought us some rocking outdoor locations. A summer high: Haus der Statistik’s combination of urban deconstruction site and decolonisation in Amanda Piña’s mesmeric Frontera | Border – A Living Monument – the perfect match.


We’re increasingly seeing that the “right” and the “wrong” castings for roles are becoming more fluid. This played out in Deutsches Theater’s Frankenstein, Berliner Ensemble’s The Threepenny Opera, The Mother – Instruction for a  Revolution, The Servant of Two Masters, and at Gorki in Leonie Böhm’s delight- ful Noorrrraaaaaaaa. They showed all you need is love, a harp, and a dash of improvised playfulness to change paradigms and win hearts. While it’s mainly female-identifying performers blurring the boundaries, the added layer of gender fluid food for thought on Berlin stages is certainly to be welcomed.


This is Volksbühne after all, and the feuds, shit-storms, and scandals that followed Frank Castrof’s begrudged exit in 2017 could not possibly end with the appointment of René Pollesch, whom many saw as his natural heir from day one. The new Intendant made his grand entrance with two self-penned productions that pleased fans and frustrated others. While some described Aufstieg und Fall eines Vorhangs und sein Leben dazwischen as “wonderfully pointless”, others pointed to an anti-climactic start, and disliked just as much Die Gewehre der Frau Kathrin Angerer for its dumbed-down female characters and plotless, rambling verbal wankerism. At least the diaphanous giant orange curtain, a marvellous revolving bar and live camera work seem to rally both sides.


Voltaire is rumoured to have said: “Whatever’s too ridiculous to be spoken should be sung”, which is why musicals are so much fun. Marius Schötz’s Volksbühne-streamed Sisyphus or how to propose a deal to the FBI was a gleeful romp and case in point, with the multi-talented ensemble delivering ironic, droll and often downright ludicrous lyrics with gusto and conviction. Plus, alphorns! Still running to sold-out houses is Barrie Kosky’s athletic and assured Threepenny – a must see. As is Yael Ronen’s fabulously OTT lyrical satirical revue Slippery Slope – go!


Pandemic-assisted, lots of quality theatre beaming into our homes, including Komische Oper’s recent free live premiere of Barrie Kosky’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, meant no travel time and comfier seats. Special mentions also go to the disturbing visuals of Woyzeck Interrupted at Deutsches Theater (originally streamed), the smooth live video mixing of Karagörlz’s futurist cultural heritage comedy Leaving Earth But Holding On To Humanity on Theater Aufbau Kreuzberg’s smaller-budget stage, and the skilful, ingenious use of camera and Volksbühne space in the musical Sisyphus, also streamed for free.


It’s 2021, and as we’re still fighting a respiratory virus, climate deniers and the car lobby – do audiences still need to be subjected to passive smoking – like during Pollesche’s new shows? Or, worse, to motorbike exhaust particulates like in Florentina Holzinger’s A Divine Comedy? There was another stinking motorbike at Deutsches Theater in Frankenstein, though at least in Woyzeck Interrupted a crucial smoking scene was played high enough up so as not to affect our lungs. Meanwhile, both HomeWork at ETB and Slippery Slope at Gorki found solutions for rendering smokeless scenes, proving that respecting our health is indeed possible.