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Editor's Column

How Berlin’s stages are reviving and refining the variety show

Recent theatre productions like 'Fiddler! A Musical' have reinvented the variety show for the digital age.

Fiddler! A Musical at HAU. Photo: © Mayra Wallraff

I must admit I had to wrack my brains a bit after watching Fiddler! A Musical at HAU in December. Ariel Efraim Ashbel and friends’ postmodern homage to the Broadway classic, Fiddler on the Roof, held no hands. Even though it opened its second half with a Powerpoint presentation discussing some of its influences (a choice that could also alienate), it still asked its audience to work out independently the relationships between the various events occurring on stage and its namechecked antecedent(s) – as well as their ultimate significance.

And the piece went far beyond the original Fiddler on the Roof. It was an ambitious attempt to wrestle with the “tradition”, as Tevye sings, of Jewish performance, ranging from 19th-century vaudeville through Broadway spectaculars to the preoccupations of Berlin’s diverse, vibrant performers today – a heady multiplicity, which yielded some beautiful, albeit fragmented, moments and resonances. And yet, as a form, it was hardly an outlier; it was simply the most explicit iteration of the modern variety theatre that characterises a lot of what’s on stage in this city.   

Variety demands that we think

Theatre has always had something of the various in it. Greek drama took shape to the sound of the chorus and wind instruments. Music and dancing were common features of Shakespearean performances. Ballet interludes feature in Wagner’s operas. However, around the turn of the 19th century “variety theatre”, as it was called in the UK, or “vaudeville” in the US, pushed theatre’s variousness to extremes.

Much maligned and considered a low form of art, the genre captured the experience of the modern city’s colliding worlds, as the scholar Robert M. Lewis has noted. Musical performances alternated with comedy acts and famously dramatic monologues – you could find a short ballet and daredevil acrobatics sandwiching a boxing match. A short film might appear only to be followed by an aria and a Wild West reenactment.

By 1905, some rated vaudeville as the avant-garde of theatrical innovation: “Formerly most of the novelties of the vaudeville were drawn from the ‘legitimate’ stage; now the reverse is absolutely the case, and, indeed, nearly all the real ‘new’ ideas embodied by the playwright are suggested from the thousands of clever things that have been used by the vaudeville managers,” reads one leaflet from this period. Looking around Berlin, I wonder if there might be something to that – not in its most vulgar manifestations (for vaudeville was also the site of minstrelsy and crude racial comedy), but as a way to think about the great diversity so many shows hold in themselves. 

Sistas! by Golda Barton. Photo: © Greta Markurt

The nod to variety might be obvious in something like Ophelia’s Got Talent, which involves acrobatic stunts and aquatic feats as well as dancing to Ed Sheeran. But what I find most interesting is that the logic of variety theatre pops up even in pieces that aren’t built around big spectacle. There’s something of the “variety show” structure in the one-woman performance of Sina Martens in Lena Brasch’s It’s Britney, Bitch at the Berliner Ensemble. Only Martens is onstage, but with each monologue broken up by a slowed-down version of a Spears song (and each monologue taking on a different aspect of Britney’s character), it offers a multitude of textures – including Martens’ closing recreation of Spears’ ‘Oops!…I Did It Again’, complete with the red jumpsuit, which brought the house down. Even if it is ultimately more unified – and uses the variety to create a critical distance for reflection – the show was still reminiscent of this earlier form. 

Variety theatre pops up even in pieces that aren’t built around big spectacle.

Hints of the variety show also appear in Katharina Stoll and Isabelle Redfern’s Sistas!, a Volksbühne production that at first seems to operate as a psychological family drama in the vein of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters – the inspiration from which this contemplation of inheritance, Blackness and Germanness builds. But living-room conversations break out into square dancing, opera singing interludes break-up scenes, and the play even features a moment of escalating sword swallowing. 

Such moments do interrupt the forward movement of traditional narrative. We lose ready causation, and instead have to figure out how the spectacle that appears before us sits with what came before. Variety, in other words, demands that we think. It’s a logic that exists across our lives – for what is flicking through TikTok or watching YouTube but a kind of digital vaudeville?

Indeed, variety has long been great entertainment, but these days, the variety on Berlin’s contemporary stage has become a spectacular technique of estrangement – one where the audience is asked to reflect on the logic of the narrative on stage and, perhaps, our lives.